The Biggest Predictor of Relationship Failure
Across cultures and over decades, this subconscious reaction continues to speak volumes about the longevity of a relationship
“Why are you looking at me like THAT?” He spat out quickly.
His voice shot me back to reality. I shook my head to snap out of it.
“Nothing. I… I… I was just looking at the cabinet behind you.” I mumbled back.
Then he did it a second time. Full on in front of me this time. To let me know exactly the disdain he felt without saying a word.
Thirty seconds prior to this exchange was the first time I caught my husband rolling his eyes to communicate contempt toward me to his best friend who was in the room with us.
My slack-jawed stare at him was due to my own naive shock. I thought we were okay? Obviously, I am mistaken, if he feels such condescension toward me being in the same room that he has a gut reaction that causes him to roll his eyes.
It felt like the truth just socked me in the jaw. But I knew what it meant, where it would most likely lead and I took heed.
When people tell you who they are, believe them! _Oprah
Before I get accused of over-reaction or projection etc., please understand that I was raised in a multi-generational female household. I have several Great Aunts (my grandmother’s widowed sisters) who considered themselves to be “Man Whisperers” or relationship experts or “Just plain ‘ol smart about mens,” like they used to say.
Therefore, my pre-teen and teen years were spent listening (usually not willingly) to all their aforementioned expertise about men and relationships. One of their favorite sayings was, “When a man rolls his eyes at his woman, it means indifference. Indifference is the opposite of love, not hate. There is still passion in hate. There is nothing left in indifference.”
I am not quite sure where they found this very astute and still relevant behavior analysis information, or even where they got the quote.
But all those years ago, they nailed the number one relationship killer sign: The Eye Roll. And it is still true today.
What Does Science Say?
The behavior of rolling your eyes signifies the feeling of contempt. Contempt is a slow, crippling relationship death. It shows up slowly and grows (sometimes quietly in the background) in your relationship.
Psychologist and Harvard graduate Susan Heiter states, “Eye-rolling suggests contempt. An upper lip raised on one side suggests contempt. So does a sarcastic tone of voice. Beware if you have these habits, and also if you have been on the receiving end of these negative communications. They are sure signs that someone is not listening or listening to deprecate you (or you to deprecate your partner), not to gain understanding.”
University of Washington Psychologist, John Gottman, has been studying couples and marriage for forty years at the Gottman Institute. They distinguish contempt “is the most poisonous of all relationship killers. We cannot emphasize that enough. Contempt destroys psychological, emotional, and physical health.”
Sometimes, contempt grows subconsciously, if someone is crossing boundaries you aren’t addressing with them. Your mind is keeping track no matter how you rationalize or explain away behaviors. Because contempt grows over time and builds upon itself, when you finally address these feelings, it is too far gone to ever get over or start from anew.
Dr. Steven Stosny writes, “Contempt in love relationships occurs at the end of a long chain of resentment, caused by accumulated perceptions of unfairness. Contempt makes partners seem more like opponents than loved ones.”
He suggests, “Contempt is the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s because contemptuous attributions eliminate all chance of improvement.”
You begin to think your problems come directly from the particular person you contempt, but the problems arise from the behaviors or emotional interactions that happen between you and this person.
Also, when you label and identify your partner with negative behaviors you don’t want, it usually backfires and you see more of the unwanted activity. If contempt becomes part of a person’s defense system, even a complete turn around in behavior will not change all the pent up emotion held by their partner. For example, You have ignored me for twenty years, and now that we are old, you wanna talk to me???
How Do You Know You Hold Contempt? And How Not To?
Well, if you do a lot of eye rolling…. No. I am joking.
Dr. Stosny believes, “Contempt is present when you use (or at least think) contemptuous attributions such as, lazy, selfish, inconsiderate, crazy, narcissistic, borderline, and so on to describe someone on a regular basis.”
He also states that contempt is extremely contagious and that if you live with someone who is always holding contempt, you will usually end up holding on to some of your own resentment and contempt issues too.
If you do feel yourself holding on to negative emotions about your partner, it is the best interest of your relationship to open up and communicate your feelings with empathy and interest for the other person’s emotions. Or if you feel as if your partner is holding some resentment towards you, communication is the key to stopping the growth of contempt in your relationships.
Good healthy empathetic communication seems to be a good answer to most of our problems as humans. So the next time you begin to roll your eyes, open your mouth instead and start talking about your feelings!
Stosny, Steven. “Love and Contempt.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, Feb. 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201802/love-and-contempt.
Lisitsa, Ellie. “The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.” The Gottman Institute, The Gottman Institute, 30 Oct. 2018, www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/.
Heitler, Susan. “How Contempt Destroys Relationships.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 4 Mar. 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/resolution-not-conflict/201303/how-contempt-destroys-relationships.