Contempt, You’re the Worst! (Of Four Horsemen)

The main problem with criticism is that it can pave the way for the worst of the horsemen — contempt. Ondina Havatny, Psych Central

As designated by noted marriage researcher John Gottman, contempt is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and thus a predictor of negative outcomes. (See my last post, “Criticism, You’re Bad and Hurtful!”)

Ellie Lisista spells out its meaning on the Gottman blog:

When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean.  Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling and sneering. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.

Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner, in the form of an attack from a position of relative superiority. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict rather than to reconciliation.

Couples in which this dynamic exists mutually have the biggest chance of heading for divorce, Gottman has found. (And not only is it a marriage killer but also a contributing factor to a higher rate of infectious illnesses.)

Ondina Hatvany, Psych Central, offers another useful description of this destructive marriage/family issue: “Contempt is about holding your partner in a negative light without giving them the benefit of the doubt. The contemptuous partner is usually attacking from a place of superiority. This can send their partner the message that they are not liked, appreciated, understood or respected. This does little to create a safe, secure and trusting bond in the relationship. The tragedy is that when parents model this negative type of bonding it creates an enormous amount of insecurity and anxiety for their children.”

And here’s a third take, by Steven Stosny, PhD, Psychology Today: “Contempt is disdain for the hurt of others, due to their lower moral standing, character defects, mental instability, ignorance, or general unworthiness. Contempt is powered by a low but steady dose of adrenalin. So long as the adrenalin lasts, you feel more confident and self-righteous in blaming your bad feelings on some defect of your partner. But you also feel less humane. And when the adrenalin wears off, you feel depressed.”

Susan Heitler, PhD, Psychology Today, lists six noteworthy, but not good, effects on couples (click on the link for details):

  1. Insufficient loving 
  2. Powering over
  3. Toxicity dumping 
  4. Contempt signifies rejection 
  5. Contempt signifies breaks in the flow
  6. Contempt invites feelings of hopelessness

Whereas Stosny speaks of compassion as an antidote, Heitler suggests that empathy could be.

Two things to work on, Heitler says, are “listening to understand, appreciate and agree” and positivity. “Positive people enhance their relationships via positive communications such as, for instance, appreciation, gratitude, affection, agreement, interest and smiles.”

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