Contempt has often been described as “disgust plus anger.” It typically shows up when someone has been holding on to negative thoughts about their partner for a very long time. Everybody has a negative thought about their partner from time to time. It’s inevitable that two people living in close physical and emotional proximity are going to do things that annoy, frustrate, or hurt each other. But if one or both partners begins to hold on to their negative feelings, those feelings tend to evolve over time into resentment and anger. Eventually it will lead to feelings of disgust toward the other person. And disgust is an evaluation of the other person as no longer deserving of our respect and honor. (Cue the Yoda quote).
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Gottman talks about this as a break-down in our fondness and admiration system. When we’re missing fondness and admiration for our partner, everything they do can begin to be annoying, angering, or downright sickening to us. It’s a perfect example of the idea that you get more of what you focus on. If you’re looking for your partner to act stupid, or say something annoying, or behave helplessly, you’re very likely going to find them doing that very thing. On the other hand, if you can also remember the things that you love about them, that have always drawn you to them, then it can temper those negative feelings and leave room for you to tolerate their foibles and flaws.
So how do you cultivate the fondness and admiration system in your relationship? It’s really pretty straightforward — you think new thoughts!
Let me explain. When you’ve built up a lot of contempt for your partner, it’s because you’ve only been exercising one part of your memory system about him or her — the negative part. Every time you have a negative thought leading you toward contempt for your partner, a certain set of neurons fire off in a certain order in your brain. The more those neurons fire together, the stronger their connection becomes, and the faster your brain travels down that path the next time you think about your partner. If you want to change that pattern, it’s a matter of changing your thoughts, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to sit down and meditate on the positive things you appreciate about your mate. This may not be so easy to do at first, but the more you get your brain to fire off the neurons that lead to positive evaluations of your partner, the stronger those connections in the brain become and the weaker the negative connections become. It’s like mental power-lifting for your relationship.
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It may sound silly, but it actually works. And this shouldn’t be too surprising. When we’re in the initial throws of new romance, this is exactly what we do. We think constantly about the other person, consider all the things we love and admire about them, and celebrate how wonderful they are, all while pretty much ignoring every single negative thing they do. And it’s so easy, because our brains are flooded with large amounts of dopamine (D) and oxytocin (O) during the romance phase. Once this stage wears off, though, our D & O levels drop back to normal, and suddenly we don’t have that automatic tendency to focus on the positive. Now it requires that we be intentional.
There’s another important principle to keep in mind as well: communication. No, I’m not talking about being a good listener and repeating back what your partner has said. I’m talking about taking the time to express your fondness and admiration for your mate. It’s one thing to work on positive thoughts, but where the real payoff happens is in communicating those positive thoughts to the other person, so they know. And you know what happens when you do that? Your partner’s brain actually gets a dose of D & O again! And that helps to remind them of positive things about you. Which they will hopefully tell you. So you can jump on the D & O train, too.
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So what are some key signs that contempt may be creeping into your relationship? The best place to look for it is in your arguments. Sarcasm, cynicism, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, hostile humor, or belligerence. If you or your partner use any of these tactics when you fight or argue, you’re veering into dangerous territory. Those behaviors tell the other person that you don’t respect or honor them, and it’s virtually impossible to resolve any kind of argument when someone feels like they disgust their partner. If this you see this in your relationship, it’s time to take action. Don’t let contempt continue to build. The further it progresses in the relationship the less likely it will be for you to turn it around down the line.