Contempt. It can destroy marriages. It can wound a child’s self-image, poison the workplace, and push friends away.
If you don’t know exactly what is meant by contempt, it’s disdain for another person, openly acting patronizing, insulting, and disrespectful. Contempt is criticism with a twist. When you have contempt for another, you put myself above them. It’s criticism with a holier-than-thou attitude mixed in.
Who could possibly act this way?
The answer is: we all do—in those moments we feel superior to someone else. But, for the well-being of our intimate relationships, hopefully it’s not too often.
Unfortunately, contempt has dug its way into our culture more than ever.
We watch adults sneer and belittle others in the political arena, on the nightly news, in reality TV, and in stand-up comedy.
This creates the illusion that it’s a normal way of relating.
It may be “typical” but it’s certainly not optimal.
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 may have picked up this bad habit without even knowing it. If you want to have close, loving relationships, it’s essential to learn about contempt, and do your best to eliminate it from your arsenal of emotional weapons.
Many couples who come in for counseling 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 damaging it can do to an otherwise happy marriage.
The Face of Contempt
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.
Eckman studied contempt in both Western and non-Western cultures around the world, and believes that it’s 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’s also evident when accompanied by the rolling of eyes.
Eckman classifies contempt as a secondary emotion since it’s the combination of two of the primary emotions—disgust and anger. (The other four primary emotions 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: You’re so stupid. Knock it off and go away.
Contempt Corrodes Connections
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 family research.
Gottman outlined what he labelled “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for relationships (illustrated in this short cartoon
). Although people use some or all of the four on occasion, the research shows that when they are used in a frequent pattern, couples are rapidly careening towards big trouble. Of all the negative emotions, contempt is by far the most damaging.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Here are the four negative habits that every couple should watch out for…
1. Criticism: It’s commonly any complaint that starts with YOU, and that places the fault squarely on the other. Although the person doing the criticizing might think that they’re “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,” “never” and “every time.”
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: This is a common response when someone’s 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’s a way of playing the victim instead of taking responsibility. 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!”
3.Contempt: It’s similar to criticism but sends the message from a one-up, judgmental position. People roll their eyes and fire away, using sarcasm, mockery and/or name-calling.
Examples: “I can’t even believe 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’d know what to do.”
A common aspect is to blatantly refuse to participate in a conversation and withdraw. It’s often accompanied by arms folded and a lack of eye contact. It sends the message that the person doesn’t care, has withdrawn emotionally and is not engaged.
Examples: “I ‘m 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.
Conflict without Contempt
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.
If you’re like the vast majority of people, you’ll have one or two “favorites” of the horsemen —generally whatever you learned in your family of origin. Like any habit, this can be changed.
The first step is to become aware of your own use of these four communication stoppers. Share this blog with your partner, friends and family.
Start by choosing to eliminate contempt from your conversations since it’s the deadliest. 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 they’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.