According to relationship expert, Dr John Gottman, contempt is one of the “four horsemen” of a relationship breakdown, along with defensiveness, stonewalling and criticism. But what is the difference between anger and contempt? And how do anger, contempt and conflict resolution all fit together?
It can sound like a tall order to try and avoid doing these things at all times. But Gottman is not saying to avoid these at all times. What he is actually referring to are the communication habits that often lead to relationships breaking down. Viewed that way, three of these make more sense: stonewalling, defensiveness and criticism, all involve actions.
But what about contempt? Isn’t that a pure feeling? Words like hatred, anger and contempt are used pretty loosely when we talk about negative feelings in relationships. But the difference between these two words is actually quite significant.
What’s the difference between anger and contempt?
The simplest way to think about it is, anger is an evaluation of someone’s actions, while contempt is an evaluation of someone’s value. So, if someone obstructs you from reaching your goal in any given situation, you may become angry at them. But if you have ill-feelings towards another person – you might think of them as “lesser than” or they might have values that don’t gel with yours – you might feel contempt towards them.
So in the most general sense, anger tends to be more impersonal, while contempt is much more personal. However, the lines between these two feelings can blur quite quickly. For example, anger can turn to contempt if someone’s actions and habits become the basis for your negative opinion of them.
An extension of these two emotions is disgust. In this context, disgust is an extremely negative evaluation that someone or something is literally intolerable. It is consistently linked to violence, including family violence and violent extremism.
Why is this important in family law matters?
According to research, the anger stage of the cycle of conflict, presents the biggest opportunity for effective conflict resolution. This is because the focus of conflict is still on the actions and interests of parties over their attributes and worth.
However, by the time contempt crystallises in a (broken down) relationship, it becomes much harder to genuinely resolve conflict. And as family law clients, there is an expectation that parties make genuine attempts to settle matters out of court first.
The benefits of out-of-court settlement are well-documented. But we know firsthand that it can be difficult. Whether you want to repair your relationship or negotiate the best outcome for your family, you need the right team behind you.