Contempt is the most detrimental of the four horsemen to a relationship. In Gottman language we talk about “negative sentiment override”, which means that there is a time when a couple in trouble have settled into a pattern where they always see the negative side to their partner, and have a hard time seeing the good side. Contempt can be manifested by speaking in a way the conveys disgust with your partner, or physically with eye rolling and heavy sighing. It is nearly impossible to resolve a problem when one of the partners is receiving the message that the other feels disgust with them.
Contempt is also often fueled by a feeling of superiority, a result of often long simmering resentments about the past. In my work with couples who have suffered from addiction, sometimes the non-drinking spouse has developed a sense of superiority over the drinker, and has had some good reason to believe that over the last few weeks, months or year. Once the drinker starts to recover, the contempt by the non drinking spouse doesn’t just evaporate, and the couple has to begin the hard work of reparing their relationship from the damage that alcoholism or addiction has done.
The antidote for this negative communication style is not simple, and not easy. The couples who thrive, what Dr. Gottman calls “Masters”, are the couples who foster a culture of fondness and admiration. This culture is often broken or non-existent in a a couple in trouble, or a couple who just began recovery from alcoholism or addiction.
The Gottman method has several tools that I use in my work with couples to try to foster this culture of fondness and admiration. The first one I use is starting right away in the first session, by asking the couple a series of questions about their relationship at the beginning. Most couples can get back in touch with the feelings they had for each other at the beginning of the relatioship when they reminisce about their early relationship. This rekindling of feelings from the beginning is the first step toward re-building a culture of fondness and admiration.
Couples Therapist Chuck Beardsley
Welcome. I’m Chuck Beardsley, a licensed clinical social worker in Mountanside, NJ who provides individual therapy and couples counseling. I have worked with individuals and couples for over 13 years.