This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series
Contempt, according to Dr. John Gottman, is the single most corrosive behavior in a couple relationship. Treating others with disrespect, disdain, mockery, name-calling, aggressive humor and sarcasm are examples of contemptuous behavior.
The sociologist Warren TenHouten observed that when anger is fused with disgust, it creates a particularly deadly psychological compound: contempt.
Contempt is universally recognized by its emblematic body language behaviors such as a lopsided sneer and eye-roll.In previous posts, I have elaborated on four marital behaviors that John Gottman describes with the biblical metaphor, the Four Horsemen. They are Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt.
Contempt is, in the words of the 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”
Professor Gottman says that contempt is the best predictor of permanent separation; indeed, it is signs of contempt — sarcasm, mockery, eye-rolling, and hostile humor — that he looks for in couples on the way to divorce court.
Perhaps you have been amazed at how two people once in love now talk about each other in the most dismissive, disparaging terms. It is because unsettled anger has spawned disgust, producing cold contempt.
Gottman's research has correlated contempt with an extremely high rate of relational failure. It can be understood as the dark destination of the Four Horsemen. Contempt is the catalyst of relational collapse. I think of contempt as a metastasized form of cancerous criticism. Contempt arises out of an almost perpetual state of Negative Sentiment Override (NSO). NSO is a mindset characterized by chronic negative conceptions about your spouse.
Contempt differs from criticism. In criticism, you believe that the problem is with your partner. Contempt is a further cognitive elaboration. The problem is with your partner because of their inherent unworthiness. Contempt seeks to explain the failure of criticism to impact and influence by attributing it the partner's fundamentally irreversible flaw. The partner is typically (for example) either too stupid or morally bankrupt, and that is why they are incapable of change.
The contemptuous spouse attacks from a lofty perch of moral, emotional, or intellectual superiority. When contempt eclipses criticism, the virulent message you are giving your partner is that they are loathsome and disgusting. They are beyond redemption.
When I see contempt in therapy, I am quite specific with my couples about how damaging it is.
However, I have noticed a habit of contemptuous language which is characteristically different than the more common exasperated-critical form of contempt.
This is contempt expressed as a default style of conveying irritation.
For these couples, their contemptuous behavior is less a matter of criticism which has escalated, and more a result of poor communication habits acquired in the family of origin. When I have worked with these couples, I often found that they grew up in a family with a very impoverished emotional vocabulary.
They would go from 0 to 60 because "pissed" and "angry" were the only words they had to describe their disappointment and displeasure with their partner.
Research has proven that the more nuanced our verbal vocabulary becomes, the more nuanced our potential recognition and description of our emotional states can become.
I encourage couples who are struggling to un-learn contempt in relationships as a default state to expand their emotional vocabulary.
New words can help describe a more nuanced felt state of being.
Sometimes words fall out of favor. And when they do, we may suffer the loss of a degree of emotional nuance.
Whatever happened to "peeved" (mildly annoyed or irritated), or the slightly more intense "cross" ( just starting to become ill-humored, snippy)?
"Snarky" is a relatively new word (1906) that is increasing in popularity. I champion this word for its modern nuance. Its original meaning was “snappish and crotchety." It was an early 20th-century synonym for "cross."
Snarky's modern use has softened and shifted in meaning to mean “sarcastic, impertinent or irreverent.” This word can have great utility in describing an objection to early-onset mild irritation or low-grade contempt. "Hey, I'm sorry I said that. It was kinda snarky." Or "Hey, I think they way we're talking right now is kinda turning into a snark fest. Can we slow down a bit?"
I don't mean to digress. My point is that words matter. The words you use during a critical moment are important.
The more words you have to describe your emotions, the more specificity and nuance you can bring to an interaction with your spouse.
Dr. Gottman's research has uncovered the fact that couples who engage in contemptuous exchanges with each other are more likely to suffer from increased rates of cancer, auto-immune diseases, infectious illness (colds the flu), and even car accidents.
Contempt is incredibly toxic. It takes a heavy emotional, psychological, and even physical toll on the recipient.
Luckily, most contemptuous behavior in a marriage can be impacted in therapy. Dr. Julie Gottman reminds us that couples must recognize how profoundly damaging contempt is, and make an ongoing conscious effort to reverse contempt by developing a Culture of Appreciation:
“In our humanity we need loving connection with others for our very survival – after all, biologically, we are pack animals who subsist through belonging to our pack. Contempt severs us from our pack. It leads us to cut ourselves off from others, pull inwards, and end up alone. Giving appreciation is one of the most powerful ways to connect with those around us. After all, we love to hear good things about ourselves and to be seen for the good we do in the world. Appreciation draws us closer to those who appreciate us, and in turn, when we give appreciation, we draw ourselves closer to those we love. It’s caring for ourselves by being loving.” Julie Schwartz Gottman.
For many couples in the throes of contempt in relationships, this notion of a "Culture of Appreciation" may seem a bit out of reach. It's important to know that this was the original "antidote" offered by the Gottman's to the problem of contempt.
In the most recent iteration of Gottman's Four Horsemen "antidotes," the antidote to contempt is to "describe your own thoughts and feelings instead of your partner's."
While I certainly agree with the Gottman Institute that the previous antidote was incomplete, at the risk of sounding heretical, I think that "describe your own thoughts and feelings instead of your partner's" can strike some couples as equally vague as well.
"Caring for ourselves by being loving" may seem to the contemptuous partner as more autistic than empathetic.
They have wanted change for a long time. Now they have given up. Now you're telling me that I should play nice for my own good?
The problem of contempt is understood very differently in the two evidence-based models. I believe that it's more of a philosophical difference in emphasis than a matter of which model is right or wrong.
Couples do need to shift into Positive Sentiment Override. They absolutely must begin to notice their partner's virtues and good qualities. And a Culture of Appreciation is also an essential healing balm to the emotional disease of contempt.
However, I see the Gottman Method as privileging a more intellectual top-down approach to the problem, making an argument primarily grounded in self-interest. While EFT offers a more bottom-up emotionally corrective approach grounded in processing the underlying attachment injury which fuels the contempt in the first place. My couples therapy professor, Dr. Walter Lowe, taught me something I will never forget. "Always have at least two models of couples therapy at your disposal. No one model will work every time. Some couples will respond incredibly well to one model, and not to another.
I have a friend who describes herself as a devotee of Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy. She would probably argue that asking a contemptuous partner to "Build a Culture of Appreciation" in the face of incredible relational impairment is the equivalent of saying "...and then a Miracle Happens." But she would be more on board with "describe your own thoughts and feelings." One problem is that fundamentally some clients may struggle with what seems to be a simple task, while others can manage to be emotionally expressive with their own thoughts and feelings without feeling the need to curb their tendency to be contemptuous.
I imagine that EFT would have expanded a bit more on this more recent Gottman antidote to contempt. My friend would probably argue that feelings of profound loneliness, frustration, and disappointment lurk under the superficial anger of the contemptuous partner. An EFT couples therapist would endeavor to become a transitional attachment figure, encouraging the contemptuous partner to describe the vulnerable pain-laden thoughts and feelings that sustain their contemptuous stance. When those more vulnerable feelings are explored in safety and grieved dyadically, a corrective emotional experience may occur. You can't build a temple of appreciation without fully excavating the building site.
For a couple to exit contempt in relationships, a shared appreciation of their relational gains in therapy would promote healing. This would be due to their fresh, hard-won empathic connection. It is through connection and repair that a couple overcomes contempt. Once their intimate connection is restored, appreciation has a chance to develop. Research shows that the most satisfied couples believe that their partner has empathy for them. Appreciation builds on empathy.
The therapist's ability to have a strong working relationship is critical. Building on the map provided by a careful assessment, informed by the transparent overlays of both evidence-based models, a science-based couples therapist can determine how any given couple can best exit contempt.
It doesn't matter which therapeutic road they take, but a couple burdened by contempt needs to put one resentful foot in front of the other and start moving.
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Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.