John Gottman writes about four types of communication that are most detrimental to marital or committed relationships: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Of the four, he names contempt as the most toxic predictor of divorce. Based on my own observations, I agree with him.
Contempt expresses the feeling of dislike toward somebody and implies that the other person is considered worthless and undeserving of respect. Contempt projects superiority conveyed through insults, name-calling, tone of voice, as well as facial expressions. Contempt eats away at a relationship rapidly and painfully. Conflict escalates and prevents meaningful communication. What separates contempt from criticism? The intention is to insult and psychologically abuse your partner.
Ways to show one’s contempt
1. Insults and name-calling are the most conspicuous and crude—you’re ugly, a jerk, a wimp, a loser, etc.
2. Mockery is a subtle put-down, where the spouse’s words or actions are ridiculed to show he or she is not worthy of respect or trust. A man may tell his wife, for example, “I really do care about you,” and she replies sarcastically, “Oh sure, you really do care about me.”
3. Body language, such as rolling one’s eyes or sneering, gives the clearest clue that a couple is in trouble.
4. Tone of voice is probably the most powerful weapon of contempt.
Responses to contempt
What do you do if you have a partner who is harshly critical or contemptuous toward you?
Don’t be drawn into contempt, criticism, or defensiveness. You can stand up for yourself, but without joining in the sneering, ridiculing, and hostile negative judgments.
The best way to neutralize your contempt is to stop seeing arguments with your spouse as a way to retaliate or exhibit your superior moral stance. Rather, your relationship will improve if you approach your spouse with precise non-blaming complaints by expressing feelings from your own inner experience (rather than attacking your partner’s character). In other words, it’s not what you say, but how you say it that makes all the difference.