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Criticism vs. Contempt: Why The Difference Can Make Or Break A Relationship

Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

This Harsh Communication Style Is The No. 1 Predictor Of Divorce

Most of us have probably been in a situation where we said something we didn't mean to someone we care about. Maybe you've used words much too harsh than necessary, or you've let your anger get the best of you during an argument.

Often, these moments involve the use of criticism, which refers to attacking or casting judgment on the other person's character. But sometimes, criticism can give way to contempt—and that can be a turn for the worst in relationships.

The difference between criticism and contempt.

Criticism and contempt are two of four communication behaviors known as the "four horsemen," which, according to research by psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., are linked to higher odds of divorce.

People usually criticize someone when they're upset about something that person has or hasn't done. While it's important to be able to voice complaints and needs in relationships, criticism turns an ask into an attack. According to marriage and family therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, you can usually tell you're criticizing someone if you use words like "always" or "never" (e.g., "You always leave the dishes in the sink" or "You never listen to me").

"The use of criticism in a relationship is usually due to having unmet needs. Sadly, when you wrap those unmet needs in criticism, you are even less likely to get them met by your partner," Earnshaw writes at mbg, adding that your partner will likely get defensive rather than openly listening to your concerns.

Contempt, on the other hand, takes criticism one step further by adding a layer of condescension and cruelty. Rather than just criticizing, the goal of this type of language is to put the other person down. (For example: "Can't you do anything right? Toddlers can follow directions better than you.")

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Why contempt is much worse.

Both criticism and contempt can negatively affect the health and long-term sustainability of a relationship, but contempt tends to have much harsher effects. According to Gottman's research, contempt is the No. 1 predictor of divorce out of all four horsemen behaviors.

"Contempt is criticism supercharged because it takes a one-up position of superiority," Earnshaw explains. "When people have contempt, they are expressing their discontent by utilizing shame and mean-spirited sarcasm to put someone down."

Essentially, by using contemptuous language, a person is using hurting their partner as a way of trying to get something they want. And sometimes, they may even just be trying to hurt their partner for the sake of it.

Relationships can't survive if one or both partners are regularly, actively trying to hurt the other person. As Earnshaw notes, this dynamic can easily spill over into emotional abuse.

How to avoid the slippery slide.

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The truth is, neither criticism nor contempt is healthy for a relationship. Neither are effective ways to communicate during a conflict if your ultimate goal is to have both people's needs met and to keep the relationship strong.

To avoid slipping into either behavior during conflicts, Earnshaw says the key is to learn to talk about yourself rather than the other person. She recommends using the following three steps to gently bring up something that's bothering you: 

  1. Share what you noticed.
  2. Express your feelings.
  3. State your need.

For example: "When you look at your phone while I'm talking to you (what you noticed), I feel kind of sad and lonely (your feelings). I would love if we could have some tech-free time to connect and talk to each other (what you need)."

Earnshaw also notes that the use of contempt may signal long-standing resentment in the relationship. That means a person has been accumulating frustration with their partner for some time now, and it's leaking out in the form of contempt in arguments. For the person using contempt, it may be important to start bringing up your frustrations more regularly instead of bottling them up to leak out in the middle of your next argument.

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The bottom line.

When you're upset with your partner (or anyone, for that matter) or deep in the middle of a heated argument, it can be easy to lose your temper and "go on the offense" with harsh communication tactics like criticism or even contempt. But remember, in a healthy relationship, your partner is not the enemy. You two are on the same team, trying to solve a shared problem together.

So pay attention to how you talk to your partner in conflict. Try to catch yourself before you slip into using criticizing or contemptuous language. If it happens, just pause, apologize, and try a gentler startup to convey your feelings and needs.

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