Did you know that the look of contempt is like the acid in your relationship? Bit by bit, or in one fell swoop, it conveys disgust. Now imagine when your so-called loving partner sends this signal your way? How do you feel? Angry. Hurt. Rejected. Unloved.
In my line of work, we refer to contempt as one of the lethal weapons of communication. But it doesn’t stop with the sneering lips. Rolling your eyes into the back of your head, as your partner’s explaining something to you, is yet another form of contempt. And, so is sarcasm or hostile humour.
Contempt is like contamination and eats away at a loving relationship most rapidly. In fact, it is the most insidious of the four patterns of behaviour which predict divorce: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling… weighing in with like 93% accuracy. Ouch!
To paraphrase my favourite marriage educator in the whole wide world (and also the mastermind behind this very helpful research), John Gottman, PhD : “When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.”
In his relationship blog appropriately titled <The Gottman Relationship Blog>, Gottman often writes about these lethal weapons or what he regularly refers to as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and says that contempt is almost always fuelled by some kind of resentment or long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, and is also delivered in the form of an attack from a position of relative superiority. Think belittlement. Inevitably, contempt almost always leads to more conflict than to any reconciliation. Take Jan for example. Coming home from a long day with the children to find her husband on the couch, she asks him for help in making dinner. When he tells her he is tired, she snaps:
“You’re ‘tired’?! Cry me a river… I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid…just try, try to be more pathetic…”
Or imagine Luke and Emma at dinner, after she tells him she’d rather he not go out with his friends that night, he lashes out:
“You don’t want me to go out with my friends tonight? Surprise! When have you ever been okay with me going anywhere? Would you like to tie me to something in this living room to ensure that I never leave you?”
And, it gets worse. Gottman also reports in his research findings that couples who are regularly contemptuous with one another seem to have weaker immune systems, catching colds and flus more often….lending more evidence to the fact that your body does respond to the way you think, feel and act. The Mind-Body connection.
I hope you can see by these examples that contempt is more than just complaining. I always tell my couples that you can complain “until the cows come home” and it’ll be okay, but the minute you communicate under the guise of criticism or contempt, you begin to embark on a cascading sequence of maladaptive responses which, when left unchanged, ultimately erodes your relationship satisfaction. Worse, you will feel unloved by one another.
Contempt kills the spirit. Period.
So how can you prevent it? By expressing more appreciation, fondness and respect for each other, in small-like little ways, every day. How often do you tell your partner, “Thanks for doing the dishes?” Or, “Wow, do you ever look nice today”. These type of words often get overlooked or taken for granted, especially in committed relationships. However, these are also the words that protect and preserve your connection as well as create a buffer, for when times get frustrating or stressful between you.
The look of Love
I once read somewhere that true love is like an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit. I also think the look of pardoning love is all about the repairing of the emotional damage which takes place during a dispute. Moreover, according to happy couples research, repair attempts, or the way a couple processes a fight, is a telling indicator of both the quality and stability of a couple’s union. Good relationships have the good habit of making good repairs.
I always know which couples in my Really Engaged workshops will most likely do well in marriage. They are the ones who make and receive repair attempts, push through the conflict, soften up and turn toward each other despite their hurt feelings and sometimes even listen to each other’s conversation, if need be. Even if they don’t arrive at a solution, they don’t leave each other in pain. They pay attention to one another. They accept each other’s influence. Acknowledgement.
And this type of acknowledgement comes in many forms: I’m sorry. Can you please just listen to what I have to say? Let’s not fight, ok? That felt like an insult. Take that back. Please stop yelling. Can we just take a 15 minute break? Can we compromise? Let’s agree to disagree. Will you forgive me?
Hug. Kiss. Smile.
I love you.
What are some of your repair attempts? How do you try to fix things or help hold your relationship during tense times?
My favourite repair attempt is the “puppy dog eyes”. I think this look says it all: “I am sorry, please forgive me, and let’s not waste any more time arguing”. I also think I learned it from my dogs:-) After all, they are the masters of unconditional love!
Funny, how oftentimes the strength lies in the vulnerability or weakness.