All couples bicker from time to time, right? According to experts yes, but while it’s completely normal to have the occasional argument, there are certain warning signs to look out for, which could flag when things are going too far.
Increasingly, relationship experts are looking to the work of psychologist John Gottman, a professor at the University of Washington who founded the Gottman Institute, and what he calls ‘the four horsemen’, to help people identify the reasons why their bickering too often escalates into a full-blown row.
It’s thought that these ‘four horsemen’ - criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling - are the key contributors that lead to the breakdown of a relationship, and due to their nature, are most likely to arise during disagreements.
They are, according to Gottman’s theory, the communication styles that ‘can predict the end of a relationship’.
But while it’s possible to pull things back from most of these communication styles - Gottman has developed an antidote for each, to help counter their effects - feelings of contempt may actually be fatal.
“When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean – treating others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling,” explains Ellie Lisitsa on the The Gottman Relationship Blog.
“The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.”
During his research of couples who were not able to save their marriage, Gottman found that feelings of contempt for each other was one of the most common traits.
“Contempt is poisonous because it conveys disgust. It can only be destructive. It is virtually impossible for a couple to resolve a problem while one partner is getting the message that the other finds them disgusting,” adds Lisitsa, in an in-depth write-up
“[It is] fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner – which come to a head in the perpetrator attacking the accused from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman’s work.”
Along with higher divorce rates, the research also (unexpectedly) found that couples locked into contemptuous feelings tended to suffer from more colds, flu bugs and illnesses, suggesting that these underlying feelings of unhappiness worked to weaken the immune system of both people in the relationship too.
So what can be done? If your relationship has reached a point of regular contemptuous communication, it’s likely there are several issues at play, which will need to be resolved before you can move on.
According to Gottman’s theory, the ‘antidote’ for contempt is ‘building a culture of appreciation and respect’.