I have offered alternatives and antidotes to criticism and defensiveness, two of the destructive “horsemen” Gottman referred to that would destroy marriages (see post “Other Destructive Weeds”, November 6, 2009 as well as following posts). But what about contempt and stonewalling, the other two “horsemen”?
First, contempt. The dictionary definition of contempt states: “the feeling one has toward somebody or something one considers low, worthless, etc.” In other words, when we feel contempt, we don’t just criticize the actions of the other, we criticize their character, the essence of who they are. It is also important to note that whereas criticizing is something we do, contempt is something we feel.
It is important to understand that feelings are only as real or true as the thoughts that precede them. Just because we feel that a person is worthless, a jerk, a low-life etc., does not mean that they really are. In fact, it has much more to do with our perception, either of the other person or of our relationship (particularly hurts, unintentional or not, that we have received). In fact, sometimes a spouse will state something to the effect that he or she wasn’t there when they needed them or in a really honest moment “Why wouldn’t they fight for me?”
To change our feelings, we need to first change our thoughts. So alternatives and antidotes for contempt are really the same as those for criticism and defensiveness –addressing the real underlying hurts and concerns, choosing to focus more on the positive, having “goodwill”, empathy etc. We can also try to remember how we felt when we first met and were getting to know each other, what attracted us to each other then and choose to focus more on those thoughts and feelings now.