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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 11:58 pm | Fair 45º


Russell Collins: Contempt — the Relationship Killer

It's proven to be one of the most damaging emotions, but understanding its source and power can loosen its grip on how we respond to it

There are two facial movements that seem to characterize the emotion of contempt, and my client Sally (we’ll call her that) was making both of them: a slight upturn on one side of the mouth, and an almost undetectable rolling of the eyes.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

Sally’s look was in response to her husband’s claim that she never showed affection toward him in public. It was my first session with Sally and Jim, and I knew in that instant that we had some challenges ahead to get where they wanted to go: back to the kind of closeness they had in the early days of their marriage, just before their son Jason was born.

Of all the negative emotions, contempt is the most damaging to a relationship. John Gottman is the marital researcher famous for his snapshot observations of arguing partners. After just five minutes, he can predict with 91 percent accuracy whether they will make it as a couple. Gottman’s secret is a set of danger signals he has identified in the way a couple communicates. When their arguing is riddled with contempt, Gottman’s research has shown, they are almost certainly on the road to marital disaster.

“Look at her,” Jim is saying to me, his anger suddenly erupting. “That’s what she does. She doesn’t give a damn about any of this.” In response, Sally shakes her head slowly, “That’s so not true.” She waves her hand dismissively. “If anybody gives a damn in this marriage, it’s me.”

This is as close to a declaration of love as Sally has given in the session so far. Despite that, her look is still one of mocking and contempt.

What’s Going on Here?

Couples usually see their conflicts as chronic disagreements. “We disagree about almost everything.” “We have big fights about small things … even about nothing at all.” “We just have different values.” These are the complaints couples come in with, often after years of trying to solve the problem on their own.

Almost always, contempt has crept into their communication. Like Sally, they have grown tired of their partner’s unreasonable accusations or demands. Often, they find great relief in these expressions of contempt, though they couldn’t tell you just why. What they can say is that moving from confusion and vulnerability to contempt made them feel instantly better. It gave them power instead of pain.

But here’s the truth: Couple conflict is never about the content of the arguments. This is a particularly important realization for therapists who see the couple as a “system,” or emotional feedback loop. For us (I’m one of these), the key to a return to intimacy just isn’t going to be found in resolving the conflict at the content level. Despite how it may seem to the couple, facts don’t drive their arguments. Feelings do. When you ignore the content, tellingly, a picture emerges that looks more like a dance than a fight. Each partner moves in response to the other, and to a rhythm no one else can hear.

Susan Johnson, a pioneer in the understanding of couple conflict, says the key to change in love relationships is not to teach the couple new steps, but to change the music of the dance. To change the music, you have to be able to hear it. The dance of contempt has a particular rhythm; it’s subtle and variable, and a little difficult to capture because it moves so fast. Like dominoes falling, reactions are triggered and trigger other reactions in turn. Let’s see if we can (quickly) sketch out how this dance evolved between Sally and Jim.

They met at a college in the South: love, almost at first sight. “He’s incredibly gentle and sweet with me. He cares, and he’s not afraid to put his emotions out there.” That was an entry in Sally’s journal at the time. She found Jim a little too “in his head” and maybe less ambitious than some of the guys she had gone out with before, but his sensitive nature made up for that — and more. And, early on, when there was trouble in the relationship, they could always “talk it out.” They even had a special place for this, at the table in Sally’s kitchen.

Jim had never felt at ease with the girls he met through his fraternity. But Sally wasn’t shallow and flighty like the rest. “She felt like a rock … like home,” he said. “Yeah, I reminded him of his mom,” Sally laughed. Their politics didn’t match up, but he loved Sally’s confidence and single-minded determination about the things she believed it.

Then Jason was born, and suddenly there was no time for anything. Jim took over 100 percent of the housework to give her a break. Still, she was tired and cranky with him. “Jason gets all her good stuff,” was how Jim described it. It began to gnaw at him.

One night, after the baby was asleep, he made her a snack and sat down with her in the kitchen. He told her of his hurt, as he always had. What she said then took him by surprise. “Honey, I’m just tired, and you’ll have to put up with it for now.” A note of resentment she hadn’t intended crept into her voice then. But his helplessness and weakness in the face of their mounting responsibilities stirred a slight feeling of panic deep in the pit of her stomach. “I can’t take care of the baby and be a mommy to you, too,” she concluded.

“I think everything changed right there,” Jim said later in our session. “I saw a new side to her. A nasty side … almost mean. I was hurt, but more than that, I was mad. I probably should have just got up and left the room.”

What Jim said next took the conflict to a new level. “I guess I’m done with my part in all this,” he said with a little sneer. “You just needed me to make a baby.” Now it was Sally’s turn to feel shocked and betrayed. “Jason is your baby, too,” she responded coldly. “What? Should I put him out on the porch and just take care of you?”

Fired is Wired

“Neurons that fire together wire together,” is the tagline for a theory of learning called Hebb’s rule, which postulates (roughly) that as events occur together in the brain, they become physiologically connected, the way points in a jungle become connected by a network of well-worn paths. For instance, if a particular emotional pain is followed by a particular kind of anger or rage often enough, such a pattern becomes the “set” response when a precipitating event out in the world cause us to feel, say, rejected or betrayed.

When Sally was 5 years old, her mother delivered a fourth child. Overwhelmed, she handed much of the care of the other two children over to Sally, the oldest. Frightened and feeling very much alone, Sally discovered how to conquer her fear by becoming a highly competent caregiver to her brothers and to herself. But along with her independence and confidence, she developed a complicated pattern of reacting when she sensed fear and weakness in others.

On one hand, she often felt a strong protective pull. She’d become comfortable in the maternal role during childhood, and later continued a pattern of falling in love with “wounded” men, even before Jim. But under slightly different circumstances or even in a different moment, she could quickly become contemptuous and angry at the floundering helplessness of others, particularly when they triggered her own, very old, fears of being overwhelmed or abandoned. As Sally grew up, all of these interrelated feelings became “wired” in a complicated neural network that operated out of sight, invisible to even Sally herself. Invisible, but lightening fast.

I asked Sally and Jim to describe in slow motion the scene at the table. This is a difficult exercise. It takes some time, a lot of attention and a willingness to go deep into the experience. Here is what we came up with: Both Sally and Jim described a rapid emotional progression ending in expressions of sneering or sarcastic contempt. Step 1 in the progression was a deep feeling of almost intolerable betrayal, abandonment, aloneness and hurt. Step 2: the stirrings of either anger or rage. Step 3: the rapid and almost subliminal — right at the edge of awareness — recognition that the anger was far less painful than the hurt.

Sally described her anger poetically as “an island of safety in an ocean of chaos and pain.” Jim described a shift in his perception of Sally when the rage began to rise. No longer was she the strong but caring Sally — the whole package of vulnerabilities, character flaws and lovable traits — but a caricature of evil. “Suddenly, she was a just a selfish, calculating b——, out to use me and throw me away.”

The last step was the tiny one that took them from the hot emotion of anger to the cold, steely weapon of contempt. “Yeah,” Sally said thoughtfully, as she followed this progression in her own mind and body. “The contempt is like a sword. It gets the anger down into something sharp. ... You can use it to hurt back.”

The rhythm of the dance of contempt is quick, from the first sting of rejection or abandonment to the exchange of dismissive hand waves and disdainful verbal jabs. With repetition, the entire sequence can be compressed into less than a millisecond, so it’s unnoticeable to the couple themselves. In therapy with Sally and Jim, slowing down the process and observing its stepwise progression marked the beginning of the end of its hidden power to escalate conflict.

One helpful way to conceptualize this is through the lens of neuroscience, which tells us that these rapid-fire steps or emotional reactions in the brain most likely bypass the cortical regions where conscious thinking takes place. This helps explain why trying to resolve the content of the argument — “you said this … no you did that” — is a futile exercise. Escalating conflicts aren’t being processed through the reasoning centers (called the neocortex) of the brain at all.

Joseph LeDoux was the researcher who first uncovered the neural “short-circuit” (through the amygdala) that allows the brain to escalate emotions quickly in response to the kind of hurt and abandonment that Sally and Jim experienced with each other. “Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let go,” LeDoux theorizes. “What therapy does is teach you to control it — it teaches your neocortex how to inhibit your amygdala.”

Recent work with brain scans reveals that the act of paying attention to these emotional steps as they play out can actually reroute them through the neocortex, so that they begin to come under the sway of conscious decision-making or “executive function.” For Jim and Sally, a few months of practice in carefully observing the process resulted in a heightened awareness of this sequence — hurt and fear leading to anger and finally contempt — as it unfolded inside them and between them. The result was that their fighting became less frequent, less intense and, most importantly, less threatening to their basic sense of trust in each other. They learned the power of contempt to damage the relationship, and found they could exit the cycle when they felt the urge to use it against each other.

My experience with clients like Sally and Jim has me convinced that this contempt is not only the most destructive of emotions, as Gottman proved, but may also hold a key to greater understanding of the conflict that holds couples hostage to old childhood wounds and traumas. A new appreciation of contempt can provide the tools to begin dismantling these cycles, and undermine their destructive power in our lives.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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