John Gottman, who wrote Why Marriages Succeed or Fail after studying 2000 married couples over two decades, found that contempt, criticism, and defensiveness ultimately lead to divorce. Does that mean we shouldn’t say anything when we have a complaint? No. The key is to make specific requests with a neutral tone of voice, instead of making broad negative judgments, such as “you’re always complaining.” You can state specific needs or feelings without exaggerating the facts.
Specific Requests versus negative judgment
Here are a few examples of how to change a negative judgment into a constructive request. Note that the most important part of the message is tone of voice and facial expressions.
E.g., Negative criticism: “You never help me with the dishes.”
Specific request: “It would be great if you’d help me do the dishes tonight.”
E.g., Negative criticism: “I hate it when you leave me hanging. You’re selfish and you care more about your friends than me.”
Specific request: “I felt worried and then angry when I expected you at 7 and didn’t hear from you until 9. Would you call me if you’re going to be late in the future?”
E.g., Negative criticism: “We never go out.”
Specific request: “I’d like to go out more. Hey, let’s go dancing Friday night.”
Contempt expresses the feeling of dislike toward somebody, and implies that the other person is considered worthless and undeserving of respect. Contempt is conveyed through insults, name-calling, tone of voice, as well as facial expressions. Contempt eats away at a relationship rapidly and painfully. A study has shown that people who make sour facial expressions when their spouses talk are likely to be separated within four years (Gottman, 1994). In an atmosphere of contempt, partners find it difficult to remember one positive quality of their partners. Conflict escalates and prevents meaningful communication.
Ways to show one’s contempt
1. Insults and name-calling are the most conspicuous and crude—you’re ugly, a jerk, a wimp, etc.
2. Hostile humor covers contempt with a thin veil of comic relief, often followed by the excuse, “I was just trying to be funny.” E.g., “Her cooking’s so bad she can’t even boil water.”
3. Mockery is a subtle put-down, where the spouse’s words or actions are ridiculed to show he or she is not worthy of respect or trust. A man may tell his wife, for example, “I really do care about you,” and she replies sarcastically, “Oh sure, you really do care about me.”
4. Body language, such as rolling one’s eyes or sneering, gives the clearest clue that a couple is in trouble.
5. Tone of voice is probably the most powerful weapon of contempt.
Responses to contempt
What if you have a partner who is harshly critical or contemptuous toward you?
1. Don’t be drawn into contempt, criticism or defensiveness. You can stand up for yourself, but without joining in the sneering, ridiculing, and hostile negative judgments.
2. Require an attitude of mutual respect as a foundation for any discussion. In a court of law, the procedural rules must be followed before the merits of the case can be heard. In relationship, the procedural rules require that both sides listen to the other person’s feelings and opinions respectfully. If the other person persists in showing contempt, suggest having a discussion in the presence of a counselor or mediator.
With an attitude of respect, people can discuss any difficult issues—sexuality, separation, weight problems, and money problems, for example. Without respect, you can’t discuss how to set the table without being inflammatory.
3. The most difficult but transformative course of action is to become aware of how we unknowingly feed the external critic (our partner), and thus participate in the cycle of contempt and criticism. We all have an inner critic–the voice in our head that monitors our behavior. It prevents us from yelling in a movie theater or showing up at work three hours late. Yet, there’s a point where the inner critic no longer helps us but taunts and persecutes us without mercy. In some cases, the inner critic can completely block a person and cause despair. The inner critic is also what allows us to accept certain criticism regardless of its exaggeration or the scornful attitude in which it’s delivered.
Each person is usually vulnerable to specific types of criticism, probably because of childhood experiences or excessive criticism received in specific areas while growing up. The inner critic becomes excessively harsh in these areas in order to catch the person making “mistakes” before someone on the outside does. Criticism in these areas is experienced very painfully, and is either accepted without question or defended against adamantly. Thus, it turns out that our own inner critic becomes an ally of the external critic.
The most effective way of dealing with repeated criticism from the outside is to deal with these parts of our inner critic that are over zealous. We must become aware of the inner critic while it’s at work, and then attempt to moderate its over zealous attitude with reality. The external critic then loses its collaborator in us, making the affront less potent.
So we need to transform our harsh inner critic into an objective, helpful guide who’s on our side. We do this by correcting harsh inner statements. For instance, right after thinking to oneself, “I’m an idiot for saying that!”, we change the message to something like “I’m not an idiot. I will just try to think a moment longer before I speak next time.”
Imagine a woman was brought up to value courtesy and to dislike rudeness. Her inner critic watches her behavior to make sure that she is friendly and nice. When her husband or children say, “you’re being mean” or “that’s rude”, she feels ashamed and hurt or becomes very defensive. If she had no hook in her—that is, no inner critic who’s easily offended by rudeness—her response would be less heated and intense. Without a strong hook, she might answer without anger or sarcasm, “That’s right, sometimes I am mean.” Or “I call it ‘being direct’, not rude.” Without a hook luring in certain criticisms, defensiveness loses its heat. As a result, the criticisms dissipate.
Imagine a man who has a strong inner critic about being lazy. Whenever he relaxes, there’s a voice in his head that says, “You’re lazy and good-for-nothing.” Suppose he’s on the couch reading a magazine, and hears his partner ask, “What are you doing?” That might be enough to activate his inner critic and make him sneer, “What’s wrong with relaxing once in a while?!” On the other hand, if he became aware of his excessive sensitivity due to his inner critic’s relentlessness, he might say without guilt or anger, “Just relaxing” or “I’m reading a great article.
Modifying the inner critic
Contempt is similar to criticism, although it’s stronger in that it implies general worthlessness and inferiority. We need to become aware of how we participate in receiving contempt. It is our own inner hook that allows us to accept a scornful “you’re pathetic” or a tone of voice that says as much. Once we’ve modified our inner critic to improve our lives instead of humiliating and hindering us, then we might respond to contempt with a calm but poignant, “Excuse me? Why are you talking to me that way?”
It is not easy to become aware of the unconscious voices in our heads. Yet, it is exciting to think that through such awareness we can develop more choices in our lives— the choice of how we respond to our inner critic as well as the choice of how to respond to others’ criticism of us.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
Gottman, John, Ph.D. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Simon & Schuster, New York.
Stone, Hal, Ph.D., and Stone, Sidra, Ph.D. (1993). Embracing Your Inner Critic, HarperCollins Publisher, New York.