Respected marriage expert John Gottman says that when spouses show contempt it is one of the clearest indicators that a relationship is not going to survive. Contempt may seem like such a strong word that you dismiss the thought of it being a problem in your marriage, but take a moment to ask yourself whether you have ever shown disrespect or disdain to or for your spouse, or have looked down on them, or been scornful for some reason.
If so, be aware that these are all expressions of contempt to one degree or another. To show contempt for your spouse is a behavior we all want to avoid. Here are some warning signs that you could be drifting toward showing contempt for your spouse when you find yourself frequently:
1. Interrupting them.
Too many times, we don’t really listen to other people to learn what they think and feel; we are just waiting for an opportunity to break in and tell them what we think. This communicates that their thoughts and feelings don’t really matter, that it’s all about you. Listen in to the podcast discussion my wife, Susan, and I had about Why Spouses Don’t Listen and What You Can Do About It.
2. Correcting them.
When a husband and wife don’t see eye to eye on something, it’s easy for one to start to view the other person as their opponent who has to be overcome. Rather than engaging in conversation, we correct what they have to say and explain to them why they are wrong (as far as we are concerned). This is belittling; it says that they are stupid or foolish.
3. Criticizing them.
Disagreeing with someone on an issue is bad enough, but it gets worse when we then make things personal. “How on earth could you think that?” isn’t really a question so much as a hidden statement. And think for a moment how often criticism is couched in a rhetorical question. “You’re not really going to wear that tonight, are you?” Over time, through repeated criticism—one of 4 Communication Habits to Avoid in Your Marriage—we tell our spouse that we do not like them the way they are, that they are not acceptable to us.
4. Finishing their sentences.
At one level this may be positive; it shows you are listening to them, and it demonstrates you understand and know what they think or feel about a subject or situation, right? But, sometimes, it communicates irritation—that you just want them to hurry up and finish what they have to say so you can speak instead. And it assumes they don’t have something new to tell you, or that they need your help to communicate clearly.
5. Making fun of them.
Playful teasing is part of the spice and glue of a loving marriage, but it can become a way of tearing down—especially when it is done in front of others. This kind of passive-aggressive put-down is one of 7 Things You Should Stop Doing to Your Spouse in Public.
6. Communicating non-verbal negatives.
Sometimes it’s not the words we use, but the way that we say them.Sometimes it’s not the words we use, but the way that we say them. Our tone of voice and body language can be very damaging.
7. Redoing what they have done.
No one likes to be corrected all the time. So they didn’t load the dishwasher quite the way you think it should be done, or the dinner table isn’t set exactly as you wanted it. Following up behind them and redoing their task treats them a bit like a child. Does it really matter that their way is a little different?
None of these seven things in and of themselves necessarily means you are treating your spouse with contempt. It’s when these things become a pattern or a habit, rather than an exception, that you should be concerned, as it could be the symptom of some deeper issues in your marriage that need resolving.
Hopefully, this list is just a helpful reminder and encouragement to you about the importance of showing respect for your spouse. So let’s take it as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship: why not ask your spouse which one of these seven missteps they feel you most commonly make with them and vow to make a change.
Huddle Up Question
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Why do you think it is important to treat everyone with respect?”