Avoiding the #1 Predictor of Divorce
In a culture where divorce is so rampant, there is no wondering why my husband and I received so many “good luck” cards and wishes on our wedding day. Although the admonitions struck us as rather rude and non-celebratory at the time, it quickly became apparent how much dedication and hard work is really required in maintaining a strong, life-long bond of love and commitment. And as we strive, we still find ourselves regularly heartbroken in witnessing the marriages of our friends dissipate and dissolve as the years wage on. Every time it happens, the grief and shock we feel naturally brings us to the questions… “what went wrong?” And ultimately… “are WE ok?”
Certainly every marriage has its struggles and can end from a whole host of differing issues. Everything from betrayal and infidelity to the simple ‘irreconcilable differences’ can suffocate and strangle a marriage. Financial problems, communication and conflict resolution difficulties, the presence of addictions, mismatched sexual desires, in-law wars and parenting disagreements all fill the pot that may eventually boil over. However after 40 years of studying several thousand couples, researcher John Gottman identified 4 main predictors of divorce: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt with the ultimate love-slayer of all four being: contempt.
Contempt can be defined as “the feeling that something or someone is beneath you and deserving of scorn.” Contempt is different than anger and resentment because anger is a natural emotion that springs from a situation in which you have felt wronged; resentment is when that anger has begun to consume you to the point of bitterness and even hatred toward the offender. But contempt takes both anger and resentment even further with the addition of perceived superiority over the offender, which results in disdainful treatment of the offender. So what exactly does contempt look like? And how can we ensure we steer clear of its sinister grip?
Check Your Body Language
Contempt can manifest itself in the way we act through eye-rolling, unnecessary smirking, crossing our arms, or facial mocking of our spouse. Consider what you may be communicating through these actions when your spouse says something you do not like or do not agree with. If you feel the desire to throw your head back with an exaggerated sigh and an obvious eye-roll, consider instead taking a moment to emotionally calm down before making those gestures. They often convey disgust and invalidation to your partner who may be making an honest attempt to communicate with you.
Check Your Delivery
Many times it’s both what you say AND how you say it. Beware of these things:
1) Criticism. This is another one of the predictors of divorce and oftentimes contempt is the endgame of criticism. Calling your partner names, putting down their character or competency with sweeping accusations will undoubtedly slice through the heart of your marriage like a nasty knife. “What an idiot!” and “You can’t do anything right!” are just a few examples. You can kindly and respectfully offer a suggestion or a complaint without negatively attacking or blaming your spouse.
2) Comparison. “Tricia’s husband knows how to do this! I can’t believe you don’t.” Comparing your spouse to someone else is another love-slayer. Telling them someone else knows how to do something or knows how to do it better is the ultimate condemnation of your spouse. You may think it might inspire them to improve on something; but unfortunately, it has the direct opposite effect. What they hear instead is: “You are a failure.” This weakens self-esteem and corrodes trust.
3) Sarcasm. “I’m SURE you remembered to pay that bill” communicates disbelief and mockery of what your spouse is attempting to tell you. Always be mindful of your tone.
4) Invalidation. NEVER tell your spouse they are overreacting. You may not understand or agree with what they are feeling, but telling them their feelings are wrong will only damage the situation more and push them away from you. This is because what they hear by that statement is this: “you don’t understand what I am feeling, and you don’t care to even try to understand.”
5) Dismissiveness. Erase the word ‘whatever’ from your vocabulary. This one frequently occurs with the eye-roll and dismisses your spouse. Also, there can be the tendency to not only dismiss the experiences of your spouse, but to additionally discount it as inferior to your own: “YOU think YOU had a bad day?? Ha Ha. Let me tell you about MY day and what a bad day REALLY looks like!” No matter how much you think your situation is worse than your spouse, you place them in a belittling position of inferiority with dismissiveness.
STRIVE HARD TO AVOID DOING ANY OF THESE!!!!!!!!! The consistent presence of any combination of the above can bury your marriage in a grave of crushing denigration.
Stay in the Present
When experiencing frustration in a situation, it is easy to bring up the past and all of the wrongs one has felt from their spouse. The problem with this is that it heaps burning coals of shame upon their head as you force-feed the vomit of your own bitterness into their mouth. This is extremely important to grasp: STAY CURRENT IN YOUR COMMUNICATIONS. When your spouse does something that hurts or offends you, have a heart to heart and respectfully, honestly communicate the problem and seek a resolution in a speedy time frame. Do not store it up for a future day of wrath. This is absolutely imperative to keeping your marriage healthy. Again, resolve conflicts as they come up. Do not hold on to them and allow them to fester like leaky wounds that will infect and sicken your spouse and your marriage at a later date!
So ultimately, if the temperature of your relationship is currently cold, ask yourself if the presence of contempt is there. Contempt is the coldness that inevitably produces distance. It isolates and alienates your spouse from you. It can cause them not only to feel like an utter disappointment to you, but as worthless in your eyes; and if they feel devalued to the level of trash with no room for healthy conversation and communication, they may soon lose hope for the marriage, seeing divorce as the only viable solution. But what if YOU are the victim of contempt? You may relate to all the negative feelings that come with this and you may be contemplating an escape plan as you read these very words. If divorce is not ultimately what you want but you feel the sun has set on your ability to hope for change, I would encourage you to share this information with your spouse; to ask them if they are willing to work on removing contempt and replacing it with gentleness and respect. There are real action steps that can be taken in therapy to resolve the issue of contempt in a marriage if both parties are willing to step onto that road. But again, it does begin with willingness. After all, it only takes one therapist to change a lightbulb; but the lightbulb must be willing to change;)
Make your decision today. If you are expressing contempt toward your spouse, now is the time to change. Get help if you need to. If you are experiencing contempt from your spouse, tell them how this toxic move is strangling the life out of your marriage; they need to know. Contempt is the #1 predictor of Divorce. The longer it remains in a relationship, the more likely it is to eventually kill it.