How to deal with contempt in a relationship

“Teach not thy lip such scorn, for it was made For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.” –William Shakespeare

The second of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ is contempt.  This is not just criticizing your partner, it is tearing them down.  Contempt is name calling and blatant disrespect.  It is hitting below the belt, pushing their buttons and bringing up the past.  It is also mocking your partner and displaying an air of superiority in the relationship.  When couples are in contempt there is a toxic air between them.  Dr. John Gottman has noted a correlation between couples who are in contempt and the number of infectious diseases the partner suffers from.  As he studied couples he has found that contempt actually erodes the immune system of an individual.  Contempt physically and mentally breaks down a partner.  It is the most destructive of the four of the horsemen and is the greatest predictor of divorce.

A partner who engages in contempt sees the world through the lens of negativity.  Almost anything can become the target of contempt.  So how do you deal with contempt?  Appreciation is the antidote.  It is through respect and appreciation for your partner that healing can begin to occur.  This sounds easy, but it takes conscious effort to remove the lens of negativity and begin to see things that your partner is doing right.  One of the things that Dr. Gottman recommends when partners are stuck in contempt is to begin by talking about positive aspects of the relationship.  It can be discussing positive or funny moments that have stood out during the marriage or how you were able to work through a difficult time together.   It can also be reconnecting through activities that you used to enjoy.  What were the activities that you both enjoyed in the early days of the relationship?  Was it playing a board game together, going for a hike, bowling?   When couples begin to talk positively about their partner, and with their partner, the pattern of negativity is interrupted.   As I work with couples, I often talk about how couples need to get into a groove, but not a rut.  It is like the groove in a record, but often couples get caught in a skip.  They repeat the same behavior over and over.  All too frequently, it is destructive contempt that is skipping.  It takes work to recognize the negative pattern and courage for both partners to begin reconnecting through respect and appreciation.

Are you ready to move the needle on the record to the next song?  It is not easy, but it can save your marriage and your health if you are ready.  Next week I will discuss the third ‘Horseman of the Apocalypse’ which is defensiveness.

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