In the previous post, Criticisms & Harsh Start-ups, I explained what criticism looks like in a relationship and how to avoid it. In this post, I will focus on John Gottman’s theory of contempt.

A couple can expect contempt to make its way into the relationship once criticism and defensiveness have become a frequent part of their communication cycle. Contempt is darker than criticism because it comes from a place of lashing out often fueled by feelings of superiority, hopelessness, or a sense of worthlessness in the relationship. Based on Gottman’s research, some examples of contempt present among couples who later divorced were: insults, sarcasm, hostile humor, mockery, making fun of your partner in front of others, and eye-rolling. Typically, couples don’t start out by being contemptuous towards each other. Contempt tends to build over time. 

Let’s take a look at examples of how things can escalate from criticism to contempt:

Example 1

Initially: “Can you please help me around the house? We both live here so we both need to do our part.”

As time went on: “You never help me around the house unless I ask you to do something several times. I’m not your mom and I shouldn’t have to keep asking you and reminding you.”

Eventually: “There is a pile of dirty clothes sitting in front of you and you are scrolling through your phone *look of disgust*. When are you going to grow up?!”

Example 2

Initially: “We went over our monthly budget this month. We need to be careful with our spendings if we want to pay off our debt. Try to only spend on what’s necessary the next few months.”

As time went on: “You keep spending on things that are not necessary. Don’t you worry about the debt we have?”

Eventually: “You need to get your priorities in check! What’s more important, managing our debt or throwing away money on senseless things? *Walking away and rolling eyes* You act like an entitled brat with no sense of responsibility!”

As shown in the examples above, a criticism can turn into contempt when an issue remains unresolved over a period of time. But one thing is for certain, an issue will not suddenly resolve itself through expressing contempt if criticism already failed to achieve that result. When you are contemptuous towards your partner, not only does it come across as disrespectful, it also conveys a sense of disgust. In such an atmosphere, you can say good-bye to resolution and hello to more conflict!

Consider a more vulnerable form of communication, such as expressing what is underneath that is fueling the anger and contempt. It will require a dive inwards to understand what is truly upsetting you about a situation – beyond the obvious reason that your partner is not listening to you. Once you are able to identify it, communicate it in a manner that would be more effective. To help you communicate more effectively so you feel heard and understood by your partner, you may find it helpful to learn how to express a complaint.




If you’re wondering how to avoid expressing contemptuous remarks and learn how to communicate more effectively, click here.

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