Contemptuous Couples

In the previous post, Are You Guilty of Criticizing Your Partner?, 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. According to Gottman, a couple can expect contempt to make its way into the relationship once criticism has become a frequent part of their communication. Contempt is darker than criticism because it comes from a place of feeling superior to your partner. Based on Gottman’s research, some examples of contempt present among couples who later divorced were: insults, sarcasm, hostile humor, mockery, and eye-rolling. If you find yourself being condescending or otherwise disrespectful towards your partner, know that contempt has entered your relationship.

Typically, couples don’t start out by being contemptuous towards each other. Contempt tends to build over time. Let’s take a look at how things escalate from criticism to contempt:

Example 1

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

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

Eventually: “There is a pile of dirty laundry sitting in front of you. This is pathetic *look of disgust*. Are you ever going to get up off the couch and do the laundry? Grow up!”

Example 2

Initial stages of relationship: “We really 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 goes on: “You keep spending on things that don’t seem important or needed. Do you ever worry about the debt we have?”

Eventually: “You need to get your priorities in check! What’s more important, taking care of our family by managing our debt or throwing away money on senseless things? Oh, right, *in a mocking tone* it’s not senseless if it’s “important”. When are you going to start acting responsible and doing your part in managing our expenses?

Like the examples above, a criticism can turn into contempt when an issue remains unresolved. This happens when negative thoughts towards one’s partner build up and simmer for a long time. But one thing is for certain, an issue will not suddenly resolve through contempt if criticism already failed to achieve that result. When you are contemptuous towards your partner, not only does it come across disrespectful, it also conveys a sense of disgust. In such an atmosphere, you can say good-bye to resolution and hello to more conflict.

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

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