Jessica Ellis
February 06, 2016 8:58 am
Pixar

In even the best of romantic relationships, arguments happen. Maybe it’s the fourth time you’ve forgotten to feed the dog this week, maybe, despite reminding, they once again didn’t call you to let you know they’d be late. The truth is, despite how much you love and are committed to your partner, an occasional stony silence or screaming match is simply expected. In fact, studies increasingly show that what hurts relationships isn’t that arguments happen, it’s how couples handle themselves during and after the fact.

A new study suggests that one of the most important factors in unhealthy fighting between couples is the presence of an emotion described as contempt.

Contempt is a tricky beast. Part anger, part disgust, it’s the emotion behind thoughts like “How could they be so stupid?” or “I can’t believe I’m wasting my time with this chump.” Basically, it’s you giving yourself a pass to not be empathetic to your partner and to dismiss what they’re saying.

In a study conducted by the University of Washington and UC Berkeley, researchers followed 79 couples over 14 years. During that time, more than 20 of the couples divorced, and a connecting factor found in many of those splits was what researchers termed “The superiority complex.” The existence of this complex basically meant that one or both partners would assume that their opinions were correct, leading to feelings of contempt and dismissal of their partner’s opinions.

If you are currently sneaking guilty looks toward your significant other because this all sounds a little familiar, don’t give up hope. Contempt is definitely a bad sign of a relationship’s direction, but it’s certainly not one that can’t be changed. Psychology Today points out that contempt can be healed by better listening.

Chances are, no matter how you feel in the moment, your partner is probably not a totally illogical, emotionless alien, even if it feels like he or she is at the moment. The two of you may simply have very different points of view and handle situations with totally different methods. If you stop letting contempt steal your empathy for your partner, you can start to use it as a signal that you’re maybe too annoyed or upset in the moment to be listening well. That way, when you feel that roar of disgust and anger welling up, you can come up with strategies to manage it, like taking a break from the conversation, slowing the fight down, or even telling your partner that you’re too upset to listen well.

But really, they should remember to call next time.

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