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Contempt: Poisoning Yourself & Your Relationship


John Gottman, one of the leading marriage and relationship researchers of our day, has studied extensively why marriages and relationships succeed or fail. He describes 4 primary patterns that are especially damaging to relationships: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. The most serious, and the most damaging is contempt. It nearly always predicts eventual divorce unless people work to change the pattern. It is a bad habit and a lazy way of expressing concerns or frustrations with behaviors. It is also a self-righteous and arrogant belief that the other person is the whole problem and you are pure and blameless and more mature or just ‘better’ somehow. Instead of addressing the behavior and its effect, you globally characterize the person as incompetent, worthless, disappointing.  It damages your relationship and your partner, but most of all it poisons you.  It eats you up inside.

What is Contempt and what does it sound like?

The Free Online Dictionary defines contempt as the feeling or attitude of regarding someone or something as inferior, base, or worthless; scorn Also: despised, dishonored, disgraced. Others have added derision, extreme disdain, open dislike and disrespect. It can be expressed in sarcasm cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, mocking, put-downs to the person or about him/her in front of others, etc. It may involve comparing the person to someone else who you see as ‘better’. Here are some examples:

The way I often hear it with couples include some of the following (with many variations!)

“You have never been a good husband/wife/parent/lover”
“You are not a real man/woman”
“My whole marriage is one big disappointment because you failed to . . . .”
“You call yourself a Christian/Jew/Muslim, but you are not even close . . .”
“I regret marrying you. If I had known you . . .. . I would never have married you.”
“You have no clue how to please me (sexually, in general)
” Our whole marriage/relationship has been empty. You’ve never made me happy.”
“You men/women are all . . . .”
“You are such a wimp / control freak, etc.”
“You disgust me”
“Now Joe is a ‘real’ husband — if you would just be more like him . . . .”
“You are so socially inept that you could not carry on a conversation with a 5 year old.”
“You are pathetic.”
“I have wasted most of my life being with you.”
“I already know how she is going to act . . . she always does.”
“You are just like your mother/father'”
Comment to someone else about your partner: “Mary has so much trouble cooking a decent meal that I wonder if she can even boil water without burning it.”

What do you do if this is your pattern?

Learn better ways to express frustration with specific behaviors or words. We all have frustrations with others, but they are usually about a triggering behavior and either an unmet need on our part, a fear, or a tender place in us.

Contemptuous Approach: “You are such a disappointment as a partner — in fact you are not one. We don’t even have a real partnership. It’s all fake. You just sit like a blob watching TV and I’m supposed to do everything.”

So a more mature approach would be to tell your partner that something had a negative effect on you, even if they did not mean for it and you want to find a way to work through it. “Something happened last night bothered me, even though you probably did not mean anything by it.  I would like to help you understand why and see if we can find a better way that will work for both of us.  Is this a good time?”  If it isn’t, set a time to talk for 10 minutes.  If it is, one person speaks at a time.    “Last night when I was trying to get the kids ready for bed, and mentioned something about needing to put the laundry in the washer, you continued watching TV. I still had to do it when I came back down. When I saw that, I ended up thinking that unless I do something, it won’t get done. I’m on my own. It comes across like you don’t care about me or about us or our family, even though I know  you really do. But in those kind of moments it doesn’t feel like it–I feel like I’m alone and I feel overwhelmed. After thinking about it, I realized I did not ask you directly to do it, but I don’t want to have to be the one asking you to do this chore and that chore.  I want to find a better way.”    And then listen.

So you focus on the triggering behavior or words (or the lack of them) and how it effects you. That is very different than expressing to your partner that essentially he or she is worthless piece of crap.

blame spouse in marriage self reflection• Get curious about what you tell yourself about your partner’s behavior, what it communicates to you — and what feels familiar or opposite about that feeling or message growing up in your family. When we have repetitive or intense hurts, angers, frustrations, our partner might do or say something that triggers the upset, but the upset is more about us, our history, and what we make up about our partner and their behavior. It’s about the story we tell ourselves about our partner’s behavior. That doesn’t mean the partner doesn’t need to look at his or her part and be willing to find a win-win approach to things. But when you hold contempt, be VERY curious about what gets stirred up in you and where you felt that even before you met your partner.

• Look for the positive in your partner, in your family, in yourself and in your life.

While it is important to address frustrations, hurts, concerns, it is just as important to look for ositive things in your partner and his or her behavior and words. Catch them doing something right, or making more of an effort. Acknowledge effort, progress, accomplishment. Look for something at least twice a week (or more!) to appreciate about your partner:
“I appreciate how hard you work to give us a comfortable life.”
“I appreciate that you are so patient with little Sammy’s constant questions.”
“I really admire how you respond to him.”
“One of the things I appreciate about you is how you call your mother every single week to say hello, even when you don’t feel like it.”
“I appreciate that you brought home Chinese tonight so I didn’t have to cook”
“I appreciate that you bought my favorite snack in the whole world –Oreo cookies. It comes across as thoughtful and always makes me smile when I see them — not just because I love eating the cookies — but because you think to bring them now and then just because you know I like them.”
“I appreciated your eternal optimism — about anything and everything in life.”

When you fall into the trap of contempt, you stop seeing the positive. You focus on the negative, on watching for one more time that your partner is going to disappoint you. You find what you look for — no matter what it is. I often tell couples to hold in one hand the junk of their relationship — those things that need some work or repair. AND to hold in the other thing that IS good about your partner and your marriage or relationship. One does not cancel out the other. Both are present. You need to notice the positive and address the negative like a grownup.

Criticism, blame, shame, attacking, contempt are like adult whining, pity parties, or tantrums. You are better than that. Contempt poisons you and the climate of your marriage. It harms you and your partner. It causes you to be and express in the world a puny and projected version of your armored fears and hurts instead of who you really are as a human being.

“The Wolves Within” – A Cherokee Story

An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, “Let me tell you a story.

I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.
But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times.” He continued, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of

temper. He fights everyone, all the time, everything is an injustice done to him. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.
Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

The boy looked intently into his Grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”
The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one that I feed.”

 Update:  Here’s an article on contempt from John Gottman’s Institute:  How to Change Your Own Contempt