Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is one of the world’s foremost marriage therapists. He’s spent four decades studying couples at The Gottman Institute 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
But anger doesn’t always mean the relationship is in danger. In fact, still caring enough to argue – even heatedly – shows that you are still invested in the relationship.
“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.”
So how do you keep watch for signs of contempt?
Some of the most common signs of contempt are rolling your eyes or raising your top lip in a sneering expression. McNulty says, “It’s an overall attitude of disgust at one’s partner and/or a sense of superiority.”
Another warning sign is passive-aggressive communication. In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, passive aggression is defined as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger. Things passive-aggressive people say include:
“Fine. Whatever.” Sulking and withdrawing from arguments are primary strategies to express anger indirectly and to shut down direct, emotionally honest communication.
“I was only joking.” Sarcasm is a common tool to express hostility aloud, but in socially acceptable, indirect ways.
“Why are you getting so upset?” Maintaining calm and feigning shock when others, worn down by his or her indirect hostility, blow up in anger is common, as is taking pleasure out of setting others up to lose their cool and then questioning their “overreactions.”
Ultimately, McNulty reminds us to be kind as often as we can. When it’s time to voice your feelings, remember to “complain gently without blaming the other person,” says McNulty. Talk about yourfeelings, 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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