Psychology and Relationships

Here's the No. 1 thing that 'destroys' relationships, say researchers who studied couples for 50 years

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As a psychologist and sexologist, we've been studying relationships for more than 50 years combined, and we've found that no matter how you slice it, most of them fail because of poor communication. 

In his book "What Predicts Divorce?", psychologist Dr. John Gottman identifies the four most problematic types of communication in relationships, based on his studies of 40,000 couples:

  1. Contempt: Expressing a lack of respect for our partners (e.g., name-calling, eye-rolling, ridiculing).
  2. Criticism: Attacking a partner's character.
  3. Defensiveness: Protecting from criticism by using excuses or shifting blame.
  4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing from communication by ignoring, zoning out or acting busy.

Of these four, Gottman says, the biggest predictor of a failed relationship is contempt.

What does contempt look like?

Contempt is more than criticism or saying something negative. It's when one partner asserts that they are smarter, have better morals, or are simply a better human being than the other.

The partner on the receiving end feels unworthy and unloved.

For example, continually interrupting the other person is disrespectful. But it turns into contempt when the interruption is not an overeager desire to talk, but rather a statement that the partner has nothing interesting or important to say.

It could be as obvious as a spouse saying, "Oh, he's not worth listening to. He couldn't tell a story to save his life." 

When this type of behavior becomes more than rare — and when it is either unrecognized or delivered with intent — any relationship, much less a marriage, is in trouble.

How contempt destroys relationships

Contempt makes it impossible for partners to feel like they have each other's back. Instead of "it's you and me against the problem," partners are now the opponents. They never know when they might be attacked or undermined.

This often stems from individuals feeling that they are standing up for themselves, which is usually a healthy thing to do. But the problem is that they are standing up for themselves against their partner, trying to raise themselves up while tearing their partner down. 

Contempt isn't just bad for relationships — it's also bad for our health. We need one another to survive. Contempt cuts off or threatens those ties to other people.

Research has shown that individuals who use contempt in their communication have higher rates of disease, including cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses such as colds or the flu

How to eliminate contempt in your relationship

1. Identify and share negative feelings.

When we don't know how to name or talk about negative feelings, it's tempting to take them out on others. 

For example: "I can't believe you are canceling our date night to meet with your friends. You're a selfish jerk. You never think about my feelings!" 

To avoid contemptuous communication, use this formula instead:

  1. State what you're feeling: "I feel annoyed and sad because I was looking forward to spending time together."
  2. Add a request: "I'd like to avoid this happening in the future by talking about it first before changing plans."
  3. Invite your partner to the conversation: "Do you think we can do that?"

2. Create a culture of appreciation.

Expressing appreciation helps us notice more of our partner's positive qualities rather than the negatives.

Ideally, we want our positive statements and gestures to outweigh the negative ones — the magic ratio is at least five positive statements or feelings to one negative one. 

Track your communication patterns over a week. How often are you engaging in negative interactions (e.g., nagging, criticizing, ignoring, eye-rolling) versus positive ones (e.g., praising, complementing, doing something nice for the other partner)?

The following week, interact with your partner using the magic ratio. Do you feel differently?

You can also try each making a list of 20 things you love about each other. Read them out loud, and challenge yourselves by adding to the list over time.

Jessica Griffin, PsyD, is a professor of psy­chiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School. She is also the co-author of "Relationship Rx: Prescriptions for Lasting Love and Deeper Connection." Follow Jessica on Twitter and Instagram.

Pepper Schwartz, PhD, is a sexuality expert and co-author of "Relationship Rx: Prescriptions for Lasting Love and Deeper Connection." She is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she created the Pepper Schwartz Fellowship on Intimate Relationships and Sexuality. Follow Pepper on Twitter and Instagram.

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*This is an adapted excerpt from "Relationship Rx: Prescriptions for Lasting Love and Deeper Connection" by Jessica Griffin and Pepper Schwartz, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Copyright © 2023 by Jessica Griffin and Pepper Schwartz.