Imagine you’ve reached the end of a long day. You or your spouse just came home from work. You’re both very tired, so tired in fact that you’re patience easily wears thin and soon you’re arguing about something petty.
This, as you may already know, is normal. Couples fight. They argue. It happens. What you do afterwards, however, is what really counts. Do you feel the need to makeup and make things better with your partner or does it leave you still a bit annoyed at how idiotic and immature your partner is being?
If it’s the latter, then you might be feeling contempt for your spouse. And, according to University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, that’s not a good sign.
Contempt is a mix of anger and disgust. It is labeling someone with a negative trait – like stupid or shallow – as if that person was beneath you and shouldn’t be treated like an equal. Gottman, who is also the founder of the Gottman Institute, says this is the single most important sign that a marriage is in trouble.
He came to this after conducting a study that spanned 14 years involving 79 couples. He and his co-researcher Robert Levenson, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, found that contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling predicted divorce with 93% accuracy; with contempt being the greatest predictor.
Contempt is “trying to put that person on a lower plane than you. It's hierarchical,” according to Gottman. And, it’s dangerous because seeing yourself as better than your spouse will lead you to thinking that his or her opinions aren’t valid.
You’re far less likely to try to understand where your partner is coming from when you feel contempt, which according to another study, isn’t good. Putting in the effort to understand your partner’s point of view when in a conflict situation shows that you care for your partner and are invested in the relationship, as showed by the research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Contempt can show itself in many forms. Aside from verbal cues, it can also be found in your tone of voice, your facial expressions and your body movement. Rolling your eyes at someone, for example, can show contempt.
All is not loss, however. Becoming aware of toxic behavior is the first step in fixing it. Other studies on the issue of marriage provide insight and a tip or two. A study published in Proceedings of Interspeech found that how couples talk to each other can tell you a lot about the state of their marriage. Be mindful of what you say and how you say it.
Another study from the University of Georgia in the U.S. that couples who showed gratitude and appreciation for one another, even through times of distress, tended to be happier about their relationship. Applying this in your relationship may help you see how much your truly love and value your partner.
Reflect on your relationship, assess the way you see your partner and thank him or her for all the effort he or she has put into the relationship. It might do you both some good.
Sources: February 26, 2012. "Contempt: The Number One Sign of Marital Trouble" (psychologytoday.com) January 28, 2016. "Psychologists say one behavior is the 'kiss of death' for a relationship" (businessinsider.com)