Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (opens in new tab), is one of the world's foremost marriage therapists. He's spent four decades studying couples at The Gottman Institute (opens in new tab) in order to determine what really causes a rift between two people—and how to fix it. Here's where it gets interesting: After all that research, Dr. Gottman noticed a clear pattern among couples that didn't stay together, identifying what he says is the #1 predictor of divorce. Ready for it?
Yes—as in eye-rolling, disgust-feeling, negative-thinking contempt. Many of us have felt it for a partner before—but even if you're feeling it right now, it doesn't mean you're doomed to separate. Here, Gottman Institute expert Mike McNulty, PhD, LCSW, breaks down what every couple needs to know, including why contempt is so detrimental to a relationship, how to spot it (in both your partner and yourself) and—perhaps most importantly—how to stop it.
How Contempt Occurs
It's normal to feel annoyed at your partner or to disagree on things, but when you allow yourself to reach a level of contempt or disgust for him or her, that's when McNulty says it becomes unhealthy. Every couple fights, and every couple has issues: "All relationships involve ongoing, perpetual problems that will resurface," says McNulty. But it's how you handle them—either with kindness or contempt—that can make or break you as a couple. "Partners who do not handle discussions of these problems well are at the most risk of divorce," he says. Imagine discussing a recurring issue, such as a difficult mother-in-law or major difference in libidos. "Partners who are headed towards divorce have the following tendencies: They become angry and use what we call the 'four horsemen of the apocalypse or negative patterns of communication, which are criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness," says McNulty. "This leads to something we call 'diffuse physiological arousal' or 'flooding' [which involves] one or both partners' bodies releasing hormones as heart rates accelerate, muscles become tense, the skin becomes hot or sweaty, and the stomach feels nervous." Sound familiar? If you've ever experienced a "heated" argument in which you felt your voice or blood pressure rise, you know that this mental state isn't conducive to a civil conversation. "In this state, partners cannot take in new information and they lose their senses of humor and creativity," explains McNulty. In other words, you'd be better off speaking later when you're both feeling more calm. "All of these factors make discussing the important ongoing problems totally unworkable," McNulty says.
The Good News About Anger
Even if you and your partner have been having some heated arguments lately, it doesn't mean you're headed for disaster. "Relationships die by ice rather than fire," says McNulty. "Some couples eventually stop trying to dialogue. They find working on key conflicts to be too difficult or painful. They give up. They grow more distant, and live more like roommates than spouses. In the end, emotional disengagement is truly the ultimate sign of a relationship headed towards divorce. "If you're both still arguing you haven't yet reached the point of surrender," says McNulty.
What to Watch For
Rolling your eyes at something your partner says is one of the most common ways people express contempt. "Besides the eye roll, another sign is the lifting of the upper lip to make a sneer," says McNulty. "It's an overall attitude of disgust at one's partner and/or a sense of superiority."
Sometimes it's subtle: "For example, when discussing how to keep their home [tidy], one partner may say to the other, 'In my family, we cared more about our house.' The unspoken ending to that sentence is, '…than your family did.' The implication is: 'My family is superior to yours.'" McNulty adds that people who are perfectionists can easily fall into this trap.
Kicking Contempt to the Curb
Now that you know how harmful contempt can be, here are five things you can do in your relationship to handle conflict better:
- Be on the lookout for common no-nos, like rolling your eyes, sneering, or making passive-aggressive comments.
- Give your expectations a reality check. "Partners often idealize one another, and then expect so much," explains McNulty. He suggests you remind yourself that your partner is a different person with different opinions and a different set of fundamental needs. You will not agree on everything, and you have to learn to be okay with that in order to maintain harmony. Why? "With most couples, 69 percent of the problems in any marriage are perpetual or ongoing issues, and only about 31 percent of problems are solved in a straightforward manner," McNulty explains. In other words, the majority of your problems will not go away or be solved—you'll just have to learn to compromise.
- Turn the issue around on yourself. When something really ticks you off, "Think, 'Why does the behavior bother me so much? Can I learn to live with it?'" If not, you can seek counseling to learn some coping mechanisms, but as McNulty points out that "in marriage, we have to learn to pick and chose our battles."
- Instead of feeling anger as your partner is speaking his mind, challenge yourself to listen more deeply to your partner's point of view. "This helps partners be more patient when they dialogue," says McNulty.
- When it's time to voice your feelings, remember to "complain gently without blaming the other person," says McNulty. Talk about your feelings, and how you feel, versus blaming or criticizing their actions. "These shifts in behavior are fairly simple but really do make a difference," McNulty says.
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