Nothing kills a relationship as quickly as contempt. Contempt leads to the failure of any relationship; partners, parents, children, colleagues. John Gottman, in his extensive research into the causes of relationship breakdown, identifies contempt as the number one predictor of relationship failure. Dr Gottman explains the four patterns of relationship destruction in the link I just provided. You will note that the other patterns are criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. I will be expanding on these in future Insights.
For the moment, let’s stay with contempt, the number one killer of relationship. And why does contempt kill a relationship? I approach this from two directions; the person who dishes out the contempt and the receiver of that contempt. But firstly, let’s define contempt.
The gesture of contempt conveys many things – superiority and disdain, for instance. It ensures distance. Contempt clearly says I do not want to be aligned with you or your values. It conveys dislike, disdain and disrespect. Clearly, contempt kills relationship.
Contempt is closely related to disgust, disdain, mockery, scorn, ridicule, shame, disgrace, abhorrence, antipathy, aversion, dislike, hatred, loathing, repugnance, derision, disgrace, patronizing, insult and condescension. It is expressed in many ways. For instance, if you scorn something, you refuse to have it or accept it because you think it is not good enough or suitable for you. Likewise, if you patronize someone you indicate they are below you. Further, to shame someone makes them feel utterly worthless. Patronising and condescension are forms of contempt. Sarcasm can be particularly destructive, and some people take pride in being able to demolish others with razor-sharp sarcasm. No wonder that contempt kills relationship!
Add hostile humour, (can’t you take a joke!), name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling and sneering! It is easy to see why contempt is the number one predictor of relationship failure! When our communications are laced with contempt, we are truly mean. What relationship can withstand such a barrage? Each contemptuous comment is another nail in the coffin of the relationship.
When you are treated with the contempt you feel dismissed and discounted, and your opinion is not valid. You feel small, or even invisible, and wrong! The other person actually intends you to feel like this! They are occupying the moral high ground. Adolescents (well, not all adolescents, but many parents would agree) specialise in contempt and use it as a defensive gesture aimed at keeping themselves safe from the opinions and influence of others. That is, their parents.
Statements such as “go f… yourself”, “what would you know”, “trust a man to say that!”, “typical woman!”, are blatant expressions of contempt. Bullying thrives on contempt. Sexism and racism rely on contempt to distance the hated “other”. Further, narcissists routinely use contempt and domestic violence is enacted through contempt. Contempt is expressed in countless ways.
When you are on the receiving end of contempt, your immune system is compromised. The Gottman’s famously found that the degree of contempt can be measured by the number of infectious diseases your mate suffers. That is extraordinary – that you make your mate sick by treating them with contempt. Often while bragging about your own good health and feeling superior about that too!
How you respond to contempt depends partly on how you respond to threat and stress in general. Make no mistake, contempt is a threat. There are three basic possibilities: the contempt will shut you up so you have nothing to say (freeze); you will be ready for a fight (fight); you will distance yourself (flight). None of these works in terms of preserving your relationship and your self-esteem.
Let’s now look at the other side of the story, at the person who speaks and acts with contempt. Let’s unpack how you are feeling when you give a serve of contempt.
Firstly, you feel superior, and therefore need to put the other person in their place. In other words, you want them below you.
But wait a minute! If it is true that a bully operates from a fragile sense of self, might you, too, be feeling inferior? Or maybe just afraid and scared? Maybe so scared that you want to make yourself and everything around you smaller? Or by keeping a distance? When you’re feeling upset do you lash out with contempt and forget your partner’s positive qualities? Is this when contempt begins to overwhelm your relationship? Do you consciously realize that your expressions of contempt will lead to relationship failure? Or is it something you do unconsciously? Do you feel so justified in your contempt that you disconnect from the effects of your actions?
Contempt never leads to repair and reconciliation, but rather to escalation. In my work with couples, the partners who consistently express contempt feel innately superior. They are convinced that my job as the therapist is to convert the partner to their point of view. (Then I get treated with contempt when I don’t comply!) The contempt might be aimed at the ‘inferior’ partners income, at their sexuality, at their past. Contempt might even be levelled at their virtues – especially when the contemptuous partner does not uphold those same virtues. The ‘inferior’ partner inevitably tries everything possible to save their relationship; they change their job, the colour of their hair, and their religion. Anything to stem the flow of contempt flowing in their direction.
However, the only thing that will save this kind of relationship is for the contempt to stop. This is 100% true for the people I work with. But stopping a habit of contempt is as challenging as stopping addiction to drugs.
So the message is clear; if you want a relationship based on trust and benevolence, NEVER use contempt. If you want the best health you can possibly have as a family, don’t resort to contempt! Develop a contempt- monitoring system of your own thoughts, words and gestures. If you detect contempt-laden communications, get help NOW! When you are tempted to deliver yet another thrust of sarcasm, ask yourself what will the impact be on your partner. Do you want your relationship more than the contempt?
Firstly, let’s note that someone using contempt is avoiding being in their own skin, in their own feelings, in their own perspective. They are focussed on the other person – “you”. So, the first remedy for contempt is to use “I” language.
For example, “I get worried when you are home later than you said.” Instead of, “Late again! I’ll bet you’re not late for golf!”
The second retort, sarcastic and hostile, is hard to come back from. The first reply provides an opening for personal feeling, apologies, the possibility of building an agreed strategy around lateness, etc. While those communications might not be the outcome, at least the tone is neutral, with some care expressed. The speaker could go on to say, “It’s also important to me that we can have dinner together.” Once again, the focus is on what is important to you, rather than accusing the other person.
The Couples Institute uses the “I to I” process, where each partner speaks about how they feel and think. It sounds simple, but I have found this a real eye-opener for many couples. Each person is speaking only for themselves. The partner just listens without interjecting – and no smart-arsed remarks!
Contempt is like weeds; weeds grow in a neglected garden which is not loved or given attention. On the other hand, weeds do not take over when you look at your garden every day and pull a weed or two, put on some fertilizer and do a bit of trimming. A long term strategy to prevent contempt from taking over is to concentrate on your partner’s positive attributes, practice the 10:1 ratio of gratitude to complaints, give lots of hugs and kisses for the oxytocin connection, cultivate a benevolent perspective, learn to repair rifts and many other skills that I have outlined for you on this site.
What is the one thing that you have learned about contempt from this Insight, and can put into practice right now? Just one thing.