If you don’t know exactly what I mean by contempt, it is disdain for another, openly acting patronizing, insulting, and disrespectful. Contempt is criticism with a twist. When I have contempt for another, I put myself above them. It is criticism with a holier-than-thou attitude mixed in.
Who could possibly act this way? The answer is: we all do. Hopefully, not very much.
On the other hand, if you grew up in a family where your parents had lots of contempt for each other or for people who were different-racially, politically, religiously, ethnically-then you probably picked up this bad habit without even knowing it. If you want, as most of us do, to have close, loving relationships, it is essential that you know about contempt, and that you do your best to eliminate it from your arsenal of emotional weapons.
Many of the couples that come to me for therapy love one another and are trying to practice good communication. They usually have no idea how often contempt creeps into their relationship, particularly in times of disagreement and difficulty. Or how much damage it can do to an otherwise happy marriage.
The psychologist Paul Eckman is probably one of the world’s foremost experts on human emotions and how they can be seen in facial expressions and body language. (If this interests you, watch reruns of the TV series Lie to Me, based on the application of Eckman’s research to uncover liars).
Eckman studied contempt in both Western and non-Western cultures around the world, and believes it is universally communicated in the same way. When a person feels contempt for another, the corner of the lip on one side of the face is tightened and raised slightly and the head is tilted slightly back. It is even easier to spot when it is accompanied by the rolling of eyes.
Eckman classifies contempt as a secondary emotion since it is the combination of two of the primary emotions–disgust and anger. (The other four primary emotions, according to Eckman, are fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise). Although we normally think of emotions as internal reactions, they also play a significant role in social interactions. Contempt signals disapproval, often from a social or moral standpoint. In an instant, without resorting to violence, contempt (like shame) sends a message loud and clear: Knock it off and go away.
John Gottman, author of numerous books on marriage and creator of the Love Lab in Seattle, began doing research on couples in 1972. To date, he has completed 12 studies with more than 3,000 couples. He became famous when his study–showing how his team could predict divorce from watching a couple fight–was featured on the cover of Newsweek in 1986. These studies are probably among the most replicated in the family research field.
Gottman outlined what he labelled “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for relationships. Although everyone uses some or all of the four on occasion, the research shows that when they are evident even in a fifteen minute discussion, the couple is rapidly careening towards big trouble. Of all the negative emotions, contempt is by far the most damaging.
Here are the four negative habits that every couple should watch out for:
1. Criticism: Think of any complaint that starts with YOU, and that places the fault squarely on the other. Although the person doing the criticizing might think they are “helping” the other to see the problem, in truth the complainer is describing negatives in their mate or even worse, generalizing about their whole character. Criticism is often accompanied by “always” and “never”.
Examples: “You’re always late!” “You only think about yourself and not about anyone else in this family.” “You’re such a prude.” “Why can’t you ever clean up after yourself?”
2. Defensiveness: Think of how to protect yourself when someone is launching an attack on you. It can look like giving lots of excuses for your behavior or it can look very aloof and indignant. It can quickly launch into counter-attack and criticism.
Examples: “I am NOT (fill in the blank)!” “I didn’t leave the kitchen that way–you did.” “I’m not the selfish one–look who’s talking.” “I can tell you all the things I did today for you and you are going to criticize me for being late!”
Examples: “I can’t even believe that you could be so dumb as to think that was a good movie…” “How could you possibly have worn those pants to school today–you look like a tramp.” “Too bad you don’t know how to be a good father or you would know what to do.”
4. Stonewalling: This is what someone does who blatantly refuses to participate in the conversation. It is often accompanied by arms folded and lack of any eye contact. It sends the message that the person has completely withdrawn emotionally and is not engaged.
Examples: “I am not going to talk to you about this.” “I’m out of here!” Or it is just giving someone the silent treatment or the cold shoulder.
If none of the above applies to you, consider yourself blessed. Somewhere in your life, you learned how to fight fairly without resorting to the hurtful tactics above.
The first step is to become aware of your own use of these four communication stoppers. Share this blog with your mate and with other friends and family.
Start by choosing to eliminate contempt from your conversations since it is the most deadly. Enlist the help of those around you.
Make it your long-term goal to eliminate all four horsemen from your repertoire, and be patient with yourself and your partner as you move in that direction.
When someone is drowning and the’ve been dragged to shore, what does the rescuer do? Pressing on the chest forces the water out of the lungs and stimulates healthy breathing…Out with the bad air, in with the good. So it is with learning to deal with differences. Out with contempt, in with compromise…out with contempt, in with compassion…out with the bad air, in with the good…again and again.
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Last reviewed: 11 Nov 2013