Last weekend thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people attended the Austin Pride Festival. As they passed the Contemporary Couples booth, they were asked, “According to research, which of the following is the greatest single predictor of relationship break-up?”
- Sexual infidelity
- Contemptuous communication
- Conflict and unfair fighting
- Sexual desire differences
- Ongoing financial strain
The correct answer? Contemptuous communication. Longitudinal studies conducted by Dr. John Gottman from the University of Washington found that contempt is like “sulfuric acid on love.” Contempt is very different, and far more damaging, than conflict. Imagine if I said to my partner, “You are not listening. You are acting self-centered!” Such criticism might not be good strategy on my part, and my partner is likely to react defensively. However, it would be much more destructive if I were to say, “You are not listening. You are a jerk!”
Contempt can be defined as words or body language that place the receiver on a lower plane than the speaker. It communicates a “one-up” and “I’m better than you” position. Contempt conveys disgust, suggests an inferior-superior hierarchy rather than equality, and slowly eats away at the connection between two people. It is often expressed non-verbally – for instance, when the listener rolls his or her eyes while the speaker is expressing thoughts, feelings, or opinions. Conflict, while unpleasant, is a normal and natural occurrence within human relationships. It can’t be, nor should it be, avoided at all times.
In fact, conflict can be constructive when it opens up the channels of communication. What makes the difference between constructive conflict and damaging conflict is the way it is handled. Try to be intentional and mindful about treating your partner with respect, no matter how angry you might be in that moment. In conflict, you have the opportunity to tear the relationship down or build it up. hopefully you choose the latter.
Dave is a writer and blogger currently residing in Austin, TX. To learn more about couple advice, visit Contemporary Couples, a gay relationship webinar resource.