Carrying on our focus on effective communication. What supports it and what undermines it?

In 1994, John Gottman, Ph.D., published a small book titled, “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…and How You Can Make Yours Last.” In it, he shared years of scientifically based research on married couples and challenged some long-held ideas of mental health professionals about what makes marriages work. 

The problem with those long-held ideas is that they were not based in the rigors of science but were based more on intuition and personal theories. Some of them were still right-on, but many other ideas failed to reveal what Gottman had discovered through his research. 

Gottman found that negativity is an insidious yet powerful culprit in ruining effective communication. Think of negativity as a dynamic process which preys upon satisfaction and undermines positivity in relationships. 

Like the Blob, it feeds on itself and grows, while what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse take up residence in the relationship. Those horsemen are Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness and Stonewalling and their true fault lies in interfering with effective communication. Eventually, the relationship is consumed in discord and negativity.

That book of Gottman’s is still a rich resource. Here we examine only one of the Four Horsemen — Contempt. Gottman cites this as one powerful element underlying communication that has gone sour. This is the negativity which we readily assign to the motives and actions of others without ever checking out our assumptions. 

Contempt for the other is pervasive in all types of person-to-person communication, not just that between intimate couples. It is poisonous even when we are feeling pretty self-righteous about the whole thing. Our perceptions about the other could even be correct, but unless we want to or can walk away from the relationship, contempt will only worsen communications and heighten our internal stress levels.

What does contempt for the other sound like in our heads? “I am certain I can see inside of you. I can read your mind. I know what is really going on with you and I don’t like what I believe I find there. You are stupid, disgusting, less-than.” Whether out loud or in our own minds, we insult our partners calling them disrespectful names. We use hostile humor or hurtful put-downs. We mock the other. Our body language becomes eloquent with contempt.

Of course, we have distressing thoughts when feeling hurt and angry. However, when these thoughts become the chronic attitude we have towards our partners, we are only licking our own wounds by telling ourselves how low our partner is, how little they know or understand or how unfeeling they are. I am sure many of us can fill out this list of contemptuous complaints.

We are busy making negative assumptions without understanding that these negative assumptions can deeply impact the health of our relationship and through this process we are flooding ourselves with internal stress. Note that we are flooding ourselves. It is bad enough we are feeling misunderstood, uncared for or let down by our partner, but through this inner monologue of contempt, we are actively upping the ante on our own stress levels. 

Of course, this is not all on one side of the relationship. The old saying goes, “It takes two to tango.”

With so much contempt, we begin to ignore, then forget, our partner’s positive qualities. Gottman calls it the “immediate decay of admiration.” This negativity will begin to seep out whether subtly or directly. Contempt, one of Gottman’s Four Horseman, is taking up residence, fostering the growth of relationship-destroying negativity.

Next month, we discuss the antidotes to contempt. For a teaser, here is this pithy detail: to counteract and overcome contempt, purposefully and outwardly express appreciation and respect which will strengthen fondness and admiration. Fondness and admiration are the very antidotes to contempt.

Nothing in this article is meant to be medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider.

Some info above taken from:

Callie Wight is a California state-licensed registered nurse with a Master of Arts in psychology.