John Gottman has long referred to contempt as “sulfuric acid for love”: it is the most destructive of the Four Horsemen – which is usually obvious to the person on the receiving end of contempt.
Let me be clear: extreme contempt (which always includes disgust and hostility) is a form of emotional battering. If you want a classic example of this, watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. No actual blood is shed, but you will witness the destruction of the human soul in the face of withering scorn. Or you can read Can Words Really Hurt Me? By Shantel Patu. In this blog: she powerfully describes the horrific abuse perpetrated by a partner wielding contempt as a weapon. Usually, the person doing this kind of abuse knows exactly what they are doing and has no intention of stopping—they use contempt as a form of overpowering, a way of dominating.
But here I am addressing a much more subtle form of contempt that is far more common among couples, which I have often seen in my work. And this contempt can be eradicated, because the person doing it isn’t committed to contempt like the emotional abuser is. In fact, if they – if you – are doing this, you may not even be aware of how you are acting or speaking out of contempt. Despite the hurt it causes (acid is still acid), the contempt I am describing here is often invisible to the person “throwing” it.
There are several ways to express this more “subtle” contempt. One way is taking the higher moral ground, as with saying to your partner “I’d never do that to you!” This comparison immediately sets you up as “above” your partner – more “adult,” more “mature,” and just plain better. A corollary version is saying, “How would you like it if I did that to you?!”—followed, perhaps, by mimicking your partner’s tone or behavior, just to show how much it hurts. (This always works.) And there is always the classic lecture: you, the adult, dealing with a particularly recalcitrant child, pointing out how incredibly ridiculous your partner’s behavior is: “No one would do that!”
I always tell couples that contempt is not a sign of sadism or wickedness on the part of the person throwing contempt. Rather, what drives contempt is desperation. It is an attempt to say to your partner, “I am standing up for myself!” That should be healthy – you are expressing your needs, right? But unfortunately, with contempt, something else is going on: “I am standing up for myself—against you.” In these instances, your partner is not your sweetheart to work on an issue with; your partner is your enemy to be shot down.
You express contempt towards your beloved because you believe you are being disrespected, and if you accept that, then you are giving up your integrity. Like an isolated soldier at war, you are alone, fending for yourself—so you damn well better fight back. The soldier feels justified in shooting (they rarely think of the humanity of the person they are shooting at)—you feel justified in needing to defend yourself.
Furthermore, people expressing contempt tell themselves they are “just telling the truth,” that they are expressing “genuine” feelings. (Ironically, expressing “genuine feelings” is the last thing they are doing, as we will see below.) It is the determination to be genuine that makes it acceptable to lash out with contempt, since I’m just “telling it like it is.” And yet, when I see the pain and anger in my partner’s eyes, I know deep inside that I’m not behaving with the integrity I long to have. How did I wind up at war with my beloved?
Even if you try not to say it, contempt will leak out. Holding it in feels like you are faking respect for your partner, and to hold back your pain is to poison yourself. The pointed silence, the tightened lips, the rolling eyes – if you are “thinking” contempt, then that is what feels genuine to you, and it will come out.
So how do you stop contempt? If you can’t simply squash it, what do you replace it with? Gottman originally encouraged creating an “atmosphere of appreciation,” but that is exactly what is lacking when you’re in a state of contempt. To simply try to do the opposite (appreciate) puts you right back into feeling fake—and the power of contempt is that it feels like you are being genuine. Gottman realized there needs to be a path that leads to a culture of appreciation, and that is by expressing your feelings and your longings. People doing contempt think that they are expressing emotions—but they aren’t. They are certainly feeling emotions, but contempt is expressing (negative) judgments, which your partner will resent. So the key antidote to contempt is expressing your feelings and longings—and expressing them well.
EXAMPLES OF CONTEMPT AND THEIR ANTIDOTES:
“Look at you, making breakfast and not asking me if I’d like any! You’re a selfish pig!”
“I miss having our mornings together – we used to really relax. I felt lonely, watching you this morning.”
“What on earth is wrong with you, driving like a maniac! Why can’t you be responsible—like me?!”
“When you drive like that, I get scared! I honestly start worrying we’ll have an accident, even though I know you’re an alert driver. Can we talk about what’s going on?” (Don’t try to have this discussion in the car!)
“Only thoughtless people are late! Not that you are ever going to change…”
“You know your lateness irritates me – like right now! I don’t need you to be perfect, but it’s hard for me, waiting for you. Tell me something about how you’re working to address this?”
“Really? You ‘forgot’ to let me know you had a conflict with our parenting class? As if. I never do this to you…”
“Honey, I can forget things myself – sometimes even important things! But this hurt! I felt embarrassed, being there by myself. I really want an apology!”
“Are you still harping on that? That was six years ago and you’re bringing it up again? Why the hell don’t you see a therapist?”
“Whoa – I feel like I’m missing something here, and I feel embarrassed. It’s important to me that this old wound gets healed, and I’m not sure how. Why is this coming up right now for you?”
Notice what the antidotes entail: a clear statement of what I am feeling (“I’m mad, sad, lonely, scared,…”), often combined with a request or a longing (“I’d like…”) and, ideally, an invitation (“What do you think?” “Can we talk about this?”)
Once you see what contempt is for, it becomes possible to kill it in its tracks— because you are now focused on expressing what is really going on for you. And that is integrity.