Relationship expert John Gottman calls contempt the “second horseman of the apocalypse” when it comes to relationships. Research shows that couples that show contempt for each other not only are more likely to break up (it is the single greatest predictor of divorce,) but they are also less healthy.
So what is contempt, actually? You know it. It is when one partner communicates to the other in a way that is mocking, disrespectful, bitingly sarcastic, with name-calling and ridicule. It might include body language like eye-rolling, and one raised lip. An example:
I can’t believe you did that! You are so full of crap. I’ve been working all day, and I come home to this! What a loser!
Contemptuous speech is designed to make the other person feel worthless and hated. It is speech that is about as far from self-responsible and compassionate as possible.
So what should you do if you find yourself communicating this way? STOP IT. Really. If you want your relationship to last, you cannot communicate with your partner this way. You can’t maintain intimacy and connectedness communicating this way – it’s just not possible. Contempt is the high-strength form of battery acid for relationships (criticism is regular strength.) It erodes trust and love. The most important thing you can do is to learn to tolerate your feelings better, and change the way you communicate your feelings and wants.
If you find that your partner is communicating this way with you, the first step is to make a request. Ask your partner in a self-responsible way to not communicate with disrespect. For instance:
When I heard you say that, I felt this twist in my gut. I realize I’m afraid when you speak to me that way. I don’t want to be spoken to with disrespect.
As the research says, contemptuous behavior is the single greatest predictor of divorce. If contemptuous communication is present in your relationship, it is on borrowed time. It’s important to get underneath the feelings that are causing the contemptuous speech. What’s going on? What haven’t you been attending to. If you need support in working through this, check out our page on coaching couples. We love to help couples through these sort of issues.
Here’s a short video: