Relationship Quandries

25 Jun

Relationship scientist Dr. John Gottman has mountains of research on how people do relationship.  His primary focus has been within marriages and parenting, however, he has found that most of those findings are true in any relationship with longevity and connection (siblings, parents, coworkers, close friends, etc.)

One of the many helpful things I have gotten from Gottman’s work is a clear understanding of the difference between a complaint, criticism and contempt.

A complaint addresses a specific action, behavior or observation. Examples: this room is a mess. Your tone of voice felt harsh and intimidating.  You said you’d help more with the housework – I haven’t noticed a change.

A criticism is more global and adds negative words about the other persons character or personality – it ups the ante by adding blame and general character assassination.  Examples: why do you always leave such a mess?  You always get short and snippy when you want your way. You never help around here – I ask for help, you say yes and then blow me off.

Contempt is the worst – it is poisonous because it conveys disgust. Sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. The purpose of contempt is often to demean the other person, to make them feel less than or incompetent.  Examples; you’re an inconsiderate slob – I can’t stand your messes. Being loud does not make you right – you’re a small person who’s a bully. You are self-centered – you don’t care about me or anyone else – forget it, I’ll do it as usual!

As a side note, couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses than other people. Stress kills!  Also, contempt, if not turned around, leads to divorce or a very unhappy relationship in almost every case.

So let’s talk about choices with regards to complaints, criticism and contempt. Learn to be an ‘effective complainer’.  Complaints are a healthy, appropriate way of voicing your concerns.  It is much healthier to voice a complaint and discuss it than it is to repeatedly stuff the emotions (that too will slowly kill you.)  When complaints go without discussion they can quickly slide into criticism and eventually contempt.  (My next blog is on how to be an effective complainer!)

Criticism.  Honestly listen to yourself.  How many absolutes and generalization do you use, especially when you’re frustrated (always, never, everyone, all the time, etc.).  Also pay attention to your tone, body language and self-talk.  When you tell the story in your head or to others, to what degree are you making the other person the villain?

Contempt.  Believe it or not, eye rolling is a sign of contempt.  Where are your eyes?  Do you say or do things that cause others to feel small, insignificant or inept?  Do the stories you tell about your spouse, child, sibling or co-worker make them out to be stupid, incompetent or a joke of a person?  That is contempt.  No matter what you think of them, they have legitimate worth, value and purpose.

For more on Gottman’s research check out this book report.  Have a good day and stay tuned for tips on being a better complainer.

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