This is another one of Dr. Gottman’s “four horsemen of the apocalypse” – elements which he identified as being especially damaging to couple relationships. This factor in particular, is considered the most damaging of the four horsemen and its presence is the strongest predictor of divorce.
What is contempt?
Contempt happens when you are truly being cruel to your partner. It includes name-calling, mimicking, or body language that conveys disgust with your partner, such as eye-rolling. When you act with contempt, you are completely void of empathy and make light of your partner’s needs or concerns. Contempt may sound something like, “Oh you think you’ve had a long day? You poor thing. I’m at work all day, dealing with an angry boss and deadlines and incompetent employees just to come home to an absolute pig sty. And you’re tired?! From what?! You’re so lazy, you don’t do anything around this house! Give me a break…” A relationship characterized by contempt is completely void of respect for one’s partner and boils down to being mean to each other.
What unspoken messages does contempt send?
Whether it is fully intentional or not, when you show contempt toward your partner, you are sending unspoken messages to him or her. Maybe you can hear it in the tone of voice, but contempt inherently contains a sense of superiority, where the one acting in contempt belittles and degrades their partner. It portrays a sense of complete disgust with your partner. When you act with contempt, your partner ends up perceiving him/herself as worthless and inferior, rather than as an equal partner.
What causes contempt?
So if contempt is so damaging, how do people still fall into the trap of being contemptuous in their relationship? Often, a contemptuous interaction is like a volcano erupting – there is a lot of build up over a long period of time that finally explodes. In relationships, this means that maybe there are issues that have been bothering you for a long time, but you haven’t said anything to your partner about it. Maybe something about your spouse is weighing on you, but you fail to bring it up for fear of getting in a fight. Then, your partner does or says something (or doesn’t do or say something) and you let your partner have it – you are so distressed from all of the built up frustrations and disappointments, that it all comes out at once. Or maybe your partner says or does something in a discussion that makes you feel inferior, so you respond with contempt as a way to regain some ground and fight back. In all of these instances, you may not have planned to act with contempt, but you fall victim to the temptation to let your partner “have it” and both of you experience the damaging effects.
How can you avoid contempt?
Drawing from the reasons contempt occurs, there are a number of ways to keep it from being a part of your relationship. You can talk to your partner when something is bothering you instead of trying to brush it off or letting it fester inside of you. This keeps from the “build up and eruption” pattern that leads to resorting to contempt. You can also talk to your partner about how you’re feeling; if you are stressed and need help from your partner, tell them about it in a way that invites them to help you, rather than driving them away. If your partner is bringing contempt into the relationship, talk to him/her about how that feels for you, rather than responding with additional contempt. This allows you both to break away from attacking and blaming one another and makes room for understanding and empathy in the relationship.
*Random note of interest: Dr. Gottman also found that couples who are contemptuous with each other have weakened immune system functioning, meaning they are more prone to get colds and the flu. So for the sake of your physical and relational health, avoid contempt!
For an idea of where you can improve in your relationship to keep things calm and happy, take the RELATE Assessment today!