Contributors to Marital Apocalypse Series
Imagine that you’re married to a lazy, unambitious, boring idiot who kills your social life and generally creates more work for you (because he won’t get off his butt and do things. Any household thing, any parenting thing, any move-up-the-ladder-at-work thing, any of the things). Your anger has been slowly building, and, admittedly, you have unleashed the beast on him in arguments because he just never gets it. And you resent him for it. You might feel a little bad about telling him what is what, but you feel justified because you know you’re right.
If these types of words have crept into your vocabulary, you have descended into the Contempt Zone. Your marriage is sailing along the River Styx, headed straight for the underworld.
The Third Horseman: Contempt
Contempt is number three in John Gottman‘s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. According to Gottman’s research, the presence of contempt and defensiveness in a marriage reliably predicts divorce. Of these two, contempt is napalm to marriage. In healthy marriages, minimal levels of the other three Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling) may be present, but contempt is totally absent.
The fundamental difference between contempt and criticism is that contempt, according to Gottman, has the “intent to insult and psychologically abuse your partner.” Fueled by negative thoughts about your spouse (e.g., lazy, stupid, rude, crazy, gross, selfish), contempt adds insult to criticism. It is an attack on the other person’s sense of self, an assassination of their character, and it suggests the superiority of the deliverer. Contempt makes the other person feel small, shamed, or diminished, and it makes it hard for them to listen. In short, it’s nasty, it’s mean, and if you want your marriage to be healthy or to survive, you need to get rid of it.
THE FACES OF CONTEMPT
Contempt is pretty easy to spot. In essence it’s any statement or nonverbal behavior that says, “I’m better than you are, and I think really bad things about you.” Take note of some of the common ways people express contempt. When you know what it looks like, you’ll be able to stop using it and limit your own exposure to others’ contemptuous talk.
On one level, this can seem like humor or teasing, but it’s really a subtle insult; only one person is laughing because he is being made fun of. Mockery is worst when it’s delivered in public, though it’s still very harmful in private. It often appears as repeating what one’s partner has said with exaggeration that demonstrates a lack of respect for the statement or for the person who said it.
Spouse 1: Can’t you help me do the dishes just one time?
Spouse 2: [in a high-pitched, exaggerated tone] Can’t you just help one time?
Spouse 1: You still haven’t replaced the rotting boards on the deck, and I’m
concerned that our son could fall through and get hurt. That’s why I’ve put yellow caution tape on the worst boards.
Spouse 2: You act like our deck is a field of land mines, and anybody could die at any moment. [speaking is a high-pitched, whiny voice] You need to protect our baby! That’s a death trap waiting to happen out there!
2. FACIAL EXPRESSIONS / BODY LANGUAGE
Contempt can be more than what a person says; it can be written all over their face without ever having said a word. One sure expression of contempt is when a person pulls one lip corner to the side forming a dimple, but it’s not a smile, and it’s not cute. Sneering, curling the upper lip, eye rolling, and looking upward as if invoking the Lord are also contemptuous behaviors.
3. INSULTS AND NAME CALLING
These are blatant assault weapons, verbal cruelty that communicates disrespect. The intent is to humiliate the other person. They can be crude and/or clever, and they can be words like slut, fat, idiot, jerk, narcissist, prima donna, mentally ill, and stupid.
Since you obviously are too stupid to hear me when I say things nicely, let me say it very clearly to your fat, ugly face: I would rather die before going to another one of your snotty supper club dinners!
If you were a real man, you’d stop sniveling and whining and get up off your lazy butt and go ask your boss for a raise!
4. HOSTILE HUMOR
Sometimes contempt can be covered with a thin layer of humor in an attempt to make the hurtful words sound like comic relief. It’s not really a joke, and the situation probably isn’t funny at all. It’s not good-natured teasing. Veiling contempt with humor is an attempt to seem like you’re not being as hurtful as you really are.
The story being recounted is from a Thanksgiving dinner when the husband’s new boss and his family were present. The husband was nervous and felt a great deal of pressure to impress his boss.
Wife: He just took that carving knife and went at that turkey. Sweat was already dripping off his nose; he looked like he had just done his P90X workout. I thought it was going to be turkey origami, you know, fancifully sculpted and served in beautiful configurations on our Thanksgiving table. It just ended up looking like wolves mauled it, scraps and pieces willy-nilly on the platter. You should’ve seen his boss’ face! I’ve been calling him “Lord of the Turkey” ever since. He’s only allowed to wield a butter knife from now on! It was a disaster!
Husband: Whenever she calls me “Lord of the Turkey,” I am reminded of my own shame because she is the turkey that has dethroned me and rabidly roosts in our house. I dream of making turkey origami with that Queen Turkey.
How Did You Get Here?
You were probably in love when you got married, so why did contempt show up? Some of the reasons it walked through the front door of you marriage:
- You stopped admiring and feeling fondness for each other.
- You forgot why you fell in love to begin with.
- Compliments are rare, and there isn’t much expression of mutual admiration or attraction.
- You can’t remember a positive characteristic or act of the other.
- Abusiveness characterizes the relationship.
What To Do Differently
If you notice that any of the points listed above are true for your marriage and if contempt is present, it’s not too late to turn things around. Since contempt demolishes any relationship positivity and undoes the union, the goal is to create a culture of pride, praise, and admiration in your marriage.
Changing the Culture
Think about what you appreciate about your spouse. If you hold a lot of contempt for them, this may take some purposeful thought, but you will be able to come up with something. Is your spouse loving, truthful, fun, thrifty, expressive, or sweet? Or, maybe they are creative, athletic, vulnerable, adventurous, or powerful. Be sure to tell your spouse the things you appreciate, and tell them about a time that they acted in the way that you appreciate. Another way to create fondness and admiration is to tell your spouse the things that you are thankful for about them. A few examples are telling your partner how you feel about their strength, imagination; the way you trust them, how they look in their clothes, how sensitive they are to you, and how you feel about their passion.
Beware of Yourself
While you don’t have to agree with everything your spouse says, it’s important to avoid facial expressions that indicate disapproval while your spouse is talking. That means no eye rolling, sarcastic smiles, or hostile sighs. Make sure your facial expressions and body language show that you are open to what your spouse is saying.
Lastly, don’t use contempt when you’re speaking! Don’t insult, mock, or be sarcastic. Work to build and sustain a culture of fondness and appreciation. Catch yourself before you speak – is what you’re about to say going to be helpful? Loving?Supportive? If the answer is no, maybe you need to hold your tongue and re-think what you need to communicate. If you are angry, be direct and talk about your anger and your complaints, but don’t do your anger to the other person. Like mama said, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Say no to contempt, and you’ll be on your way to greener pastures.
Gottman, John M. The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail… and How You Can Make Yours Last. New York: Fireside, 1994.