Many problems in relationships can be solved with only a small amount of awareness and action. Things such as jealousy, lack of trust or arguments (all topics I have covered on this website previously; please check the archives) are either self-imposed psychological defects or temporary blips in an otherwise fulfilling relationship.
There is one facet in a relationship that once fully developed is very hard to overcome though. It is the main cause for the breakdown of relationships of several years or more and is also very subtle in its evolvement.
The number one relationship killer that I am referring to is… Contempt!
Why contempt is so detrimental to a relationship:
Contempt in a relationship is the feeling of overwhelming disdain towards your partner or simply the setup of the relationship itself. It is the act of belittling or putting your partner on a lower level either verbally or through sub-communications. It is obviously most noticeable when contempt is on a conscious level, as witnessed in controlling relationships, although it occurs on a subconscious level more frequently than you would think.
Most adulterous behaviour, including all forms of cheating transpires due to contempt, or to put it another way, a lack of care or respect for the relationship. Instances like this can easily fall under the subconscious category, which is why something like cheating is often tricky to cognise.
Contempt is beyond the dynamic of an offensive/defensive relationship setup; a concept that I will explain shortly. Basically, without constantly addressing the needs of a relationship, contempt WILL slowly appear and grow given enough time and familiarity. It is imperative that couples know where it stems from and how to prevent it beforehand.
A published study on these findings:
I have recently been studying the work of John Gottman, a highly respected marital counsellor. John Gottman devised a system that can predict with high accuracy whether a couple will remain together in excess of four years, simply by carefully analysing very short footage of the couple interacting with each other.
What his system analyses is subtle communication nuances and expressions that go beyond the sort of things people would typically look for: he refers to these as micro-expressions.
This system actually goes some way to explaining where social-psychology intuition comes from. For some time now, a number of fellow relationship coaches and I have been fascinated by the way we can instinctively analyse and predict how fulfilling certain relationships are almost instantly. John Gottman’s system works in much the same way as our experienced intuition does.
Guess what expressions the system predominantly focuses on… How much CONTEMPT is being conveyed by each partner!
How to spot contempt:
Aside from micro-expressions or experienced intuition, there are a number of behaviour patterns that contribute to the overall feeling of contempt. One to look out for is if your partner is becoming overly patronising (comic situations aside) or condescending. Another example is if your partner’s respect for you seems to be waning. This could be in the form of how enthusiastic they seem to be towards doing decorous things for the relationship and for you. Another significant example is how keen they are to listen to you talking about everyday topics.
One important point to note is that there is a difference between contempt for a relationship and contempt for life in general. The latter is beyond the scope of this article but if your partner’s apparent contempt appears to expand to all areas of their life, such as starting to neglect health and appearance or work commitments, then it is likely that there are more depressing issues involved.
How contempt develops:
There are several types of behaviour that contribute towards the development of contempt and some are a lot more noticeable and poignant than others.
A partner showing signs of defensiveness, belligerence or being evasive and distant (often referred to as stonewalling) are all examples of factors that can lead to contempt, but by far the biggest catalyst for this behaviour is criticism!
Criticism differs from contempt in that it is a dynamic form of communication rather than a passive form: criticism is as much about the person who is feeling criticised as it is about the person dishing out criticism!
What this means is that received criticism can either be used as feedback on how you are acting and advice to learn from, or it can be immediately labelled as negative and contemptuous. Criticism is often done with the best intentions and although it is not the best way to communicate with a loved one, it does actually show you care.
Having said that, it is difficult to appreciate any underlying sentiments from a partner who is constantly criticising you, especially if the criticism is delivered with any visible angst or condemnation. Second to this, if there are no repercussions for their behaviour, it is like giving permission to this person to act in that way. This is how criticism can develop into contempt over time.
How to prevent contempt developing:
As soon as you start becoming aware of some of the causes of contempt listed above, start to address them. As stated above, criticism is one of the big factors as it almost always leads to contempt if it is not handled properly.
There are a number of phrasal and behavioural techniques that allow you to contradict your partner, remain decisive and opinionated whilst still showing full support. Empathy is one of the most important feelings to adopt into a relationship to combat criticism.
No one wants to feel contempt. If you are open about these topics and willing to calmly and maturely discuss them together, you can very easily avoid the number one relationship killer. 🙂