When Bill greeted his wife at the end of the day, he could predict how the rest of the evening was going to go.
Her voice was low-pitched and tense, and he knew she was upset with him for some reason.
Anticipating an attack, he reacted defensively. He barely looked at her and stomped away to change his clothes.
In earlier blogs we’ve talked about destructive conversation patterns that are traps for many couples. First comes criticism. Then comes defensiveness. The third step in this toxic downward spiral is contempt.
If that sounds like a relationship killer, it is.
Let’s go back to Bill and Susie:
She was angry before Bill even walked in the door. Now, when he seemed to pull away from her, she was madder still.
She rolled her eyes. She muttered to herself, “Here we go again. He can’t be trusted. He hates it when I get angry, and he doesn’t even ask why. ”
When Bill reappeared and asked what they were having for dinner, she let him have it. She called him “a self-centered jerk” who worried only about himself. If he cared about her, he’d be home on time. At the very least, he could have called if he was going to be late.
Bill’s fears were confirmed. Susie had only contempt for his efforts to be a good employee. To avoid further conflict, he retreated to his study to check his email. He thought to himself, “I can’t take this stress.”
Susie, meanwhile, was in the kitchen, stirring chicken that was over-cooked and drying out. “What is happening to us?” she wondered. “How can we get out of this rut?”
Susie & Bill found themselves in this spot frequently. They couldn’t resolve their conflicts because they treated each other with contempt.
What does contempt look like?
- Name-calling and other verbal insults. “You are a jerk.” “You’re just like your mother.” “That’s the stupidest and most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard.” “Thanks a lot, Einstein.” It’s reaching for anything that you know will really hurt your partner.
- Non-verbal responses that relay your feelings even better than words. Maybe you roll your eyes or allow a look of total disgust or turn your back on your partner and walk away.
- Acting superior. “I read this book about your behavior.” It’s insinuating that you have a better taste, are a better partner, are better educated —and couldn’t possibly be at fault.
My best advice — stop. Contempt is poisonous, and it will destroy your relationship.
To break the pattern, focus on the opposite of contempt, which it appreciation. It will take practice, though, to change from a destructive habit to a constructive one.
Here are some tips:
In the past, you were looking for things to criticize. Now focus on the things your partner does right. For example, “Dinner was really fun last night. Thanks for washing the dishes.” Or, “I loved that you took time with our child to go shopping for my birthday.” Or, “Thanks for picking up the clothes at the cleaners. It saved me a trip.” Or, “That outfit looks really sharp.”
Remember that softening your reaction is a choice, and you can make your point more eloquently if you show your partner respect and caring. Be sincere and conversational — not mocking or superior — when you express your need to be heard.