Contempt is the most dangerous and damaging of the Four Horsemen. According to Dr John Gottman, it’s presence in a relationship is the highest predictor of divorce. If one or both partners are contemptuous toward the other, it really means trouble.
So what exactly is contempt anyway? According to Merriam-Webster, contempt is defined as the act of despising : the state of mind of one who despises. When we communicate in this way, we are really mean to one another.
When we are contemptuous toward our partner, we look down upon them with disgust- as if saying, “I’m better than you.” Clearly, disgust has no place in a romantic relationship- at least not if we want to keep it that way.
This can show up in several ways- name-calling, harsh humor, sarcasm, even eye-rolling and sneering. If these actions are frequently occurring in your relationship, you and your partner need to work toward a resolution sooner rather than later.
Imagine Emily, who has been watching the children all day and comes home after running errands to find her partner lying on the couch. When she asks him to help with the laundry, he tells her he’s tired. She’s snaps back at him, “Tired? You’re tired. Don’t be such a baby. I work all day to keep this household running and come home to find you playing those stupid video games. If only we could all take it easy like you. It must be so nice. Guess I just have one more child to take care of.”
Or Robert, who tells his partner, Stacy, that he’s planning to go out after work. She responds by saying she would rather he stay home with her. “Of course you would. You never want me to have any fun. I’m just hear at your beck and call. You’d rather be married to a butler than to me, Princess. You just sit back, and I shall wait on you hand and foot, my dear. You deserve it.”
These comments are dripping with contempt and disgust. You can imagine that the conversation following these statements was not pleasant or constructive. It’s nearly impossible to resolve conflict when you get the message from your partner that they are disgusted with you and that you are beneath them.
Not only are marriages in which partners are contemptuous toward one another more likely to fail, Dr Gottman has found that these individuals are more likely to suffer from physical illnesses as well. This harsh environment affects your immune system and makes you more susceptible to illness.
If contempt is running rampant in your relationship, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time to throw in the towel. There are things you can do to work toward a healthier relationship. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for contempt as it only occurs when there is longstanding and deep seeded resentment for one or both partners.
The antidote for contempt is building a foundation of Fondness and Admiration. You decided to take part in this relationship for a reason. There was something that you saw in this person that at some point made you say, “They’re the one.”
If you find it difficult to think of anything about your partner that you admire or respect, I implore you to seek professional help. If you don’t think your relationship is in dire trouble, it can be helpful to reflect upon your past together. One of the best predictors for the future of a relationship is how a couple views their past.
Think about how the two of you first met. What stood out about your partner? Think about particular times in your courtship that made you think, “I’m so lucky.” What is it that drew you into this person? (Even if your relationship isn’t in trouble, this exercise can still be useful.)
For more questions to consider and help you rebuild Fondness and Admiration in your relationship download the worksheet below.
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