Relationship Resource Center
RELATIONSHIP REFLECTIONS

A Death Knell for Your Relationship

The research of John Gottman, PhD, has documented that there are a few specific behaviors that are highly correlated with failure in marriage. One of them is CONTEMPT. Contemptuousness is a set of mostly non-verbal behaviors that convey disgust to your partner. Chances are that you have acted this way in your relationship. It starts out subtly with sighs and shrugs as your partner is talking to you. Soon you start looking down and away while your partner is talking about something important to him/her. Later you learn to tune your partner out completely as if he/she was not even there. The message you are sending: “You are unimportant and not worth listening to.”

a death knell in a relationship - contemptAs the distance in the relationship increases, you move to more direct displays of disgust: You roll your eyes when your partner is speaking, or you sneer with your upper lip. Do not think these behaviors go unnoticed. They are like a knife in your spouse’s heart. You are demonstrating that you believe that you are better than your partner, and your behaviors feel condescending, even shaming, to them. Every episode of these behaviors moves the two of you closer to separation and divorce. These behaviors must be stopped dead in their tracks. If you are careening down this ugly path and you do not stop the condescension, you might move right into name-calling and bald-faced mockery. Clearly such moves do not invite your partner into a safe conversation with mutual respect at its core. You are picking a fight and trying to land a knock-out blow directly on your partner’s ego.

The path out of this quagmire lies in realizing that the goal is not winning the fight. No matter who “wins,” the relationship loses – every time! The goal is to create a contempt free zone where you listen carefully to each other and have collaborative conversations about the important topics. Reconciliation only occurs between equals.

It is important to stop in the middle of a fight and ask yourself, “How are we doing as a couple as we talk about this subject?” If it feels like a winner-takes-all fight, STOP whatever you are doing and do something softer, nicer, and with more overt respect for your spouse’s position. Consider that your spouse’s position makes just as much sense to him/her as your viewpoint does to you. Remember that respect is the minimum of love, and contempt is its polar opposite! Contempt cannot co-exist with a loving relationship. The person you verbally beat up this afternoon will not want to snuggle with you when you get into bed this evening. If you want your partner to roll over, put his/her arms around you and say, “I love you,” you have to help your partner feel loved – or at least respected – all day long.

By Dr. Howard Lambert,
Colorado Licensed Psychologist