• Jody Kussin

#82 Ditch the Contempt

#82 Family Matters

In These Times by Dr. Jody Kussin, August 5, 2020

This month’s issue of the journal of the American Psychologist, the scientific peer review magazine of psychologists in the U.S. and Canada, is full of articles about COVID-19. The one that caught my eye is entitled: Risk and Resilience in Family Well Being During the COVID-10 Pandemic (authors Prime, Wade, and Browne.)

The authors note that are mediating processes within the family that can decrease or modify risk. These are known as the FAMILY RESILIENCE FRAMEWORK (Walsh, 2015) and include:

1- Communication (clear information, emotional sharing, collaborative problem solving, dyadic and family coping).

2- Organization (adaptability, connectedness, access to social and economic resources…routines, rituals and rules are of great import in this category); and

3- Belief Systems (meaning making, hope, and spirituality.)

The point of the article is to remind us that while we may all experience some post traumatic stress (PTSD) at the ‘end of all this’ some families may even experience post traumatic growth. Can you imagine? For example, quality of sibling relationships enhanced, service to others increased, outpouring of creativity not heretofore expressed or shared in the family rising, and many more.

This is inspirational and aspirational and not set out here to shame you into the sense of ‘omg, our family is not doing ANY of that’ but rather, to remind you, we can all work to improve a little bit, in one of the three areas, or even, in two or three of the three aforementioned areas. And back to school time is the perfect time to adopt these as our foundation and build from there. Afterall, we have to create a whole new scaffold anyway, so, why not use science as the basis?

So, as we begin our construction project, let’s remember what we do NOT want to include. Because we have some good science on that as well. The #1 thing that does not lead to resiliency in families is parent/s who are themselves either in conflict with one another or who are deeply distressed and/or depressed. This is not to say that you need to play Mary Poppins and Polly Anna all day long, but it does suggest that grownups should be grownups and protect their children from any toxicity at the adult level. Do you believe your children do not know what’s going on? Think again!! They are little (or big) sponges and very few secrets are safe from them.

John Gottman actually studied what predicts divorce, and he developed an amazingly accurate formula. He identified four horsemen of the apocalypse to refer to the four aspects in a couple’s relationship most likely to lead to a separation. These are: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. For couples experiencing and acting out in these four areas, you may want to take a step back and re-assess, on behalf of the adults and of the children sharing space in these times.

Gottman found that not all negatives are alike. The four he identified turned out to be the biggest predictors of divorce and separation. After years of researching divorce between couples, Dr. Gottman found that contemptuous behavior is the number one predictor of divorce. Contempt can be expressed in forms of sarcasm, name calling, mimicking, eye rolling, and more. To fight contempt, couples have to work hard to create a culture of appreciation, but more immediately to talk about yourself and not your partner. Both of you may be feeling very unappreciated in this relationship, but attacking your partner isn’t the way to enhance their appreciation of your finer qualities! To change this around, the long-term goal is to actively change one’s mindset. But the immediate antidote to contempt and criticism is to talk from your own perspective. If you point a finger as you’re talking, you are likely being critical or contemptuous. Talk instead about yourself, your feelings, your desires, your frustrations. He suggests that couples forget criticism. There is no such thing as “constructive criticism.” Go for a complaint instead.’ In other words, own YOUR feelings or sense of self without putting it on your partner. “I had a long day and sure am tired. Nothing sounds good for dinner for me tonight.” Versus “I can’t believe you are making meat balls again. I cannot eat those one more night. For god’s sake, can’t you make anything else?”

Regarding defensiveness, Gottman says, ‘do not bat it back.’ Consider that your partner has a point and there is something for you to consider and learn from. The “masters of marriage” accept some responsibility for what their partner is bringing to them. They don’t bat it back. They don’t deny all charges! Finally, the alternative to stonewalling is to learn to actively calm yourself down and then to re-engage in the conversation. Breaking patterns like this is easier when you have a lot of practice. In these times all adults struggle with fatigue, boredom, fear, uneasiness, and lack of balance. This shows up in our relationships with our partners, siblings, parents, and, unfortunately, our children as well.

To defeat the Four Horsemen, remember that Your Attitude and THOUGHTS Matter. Not to be simplistic, because, ya’know, we are living in cramped spaces with no sign of early release. However, in the long term, if you feel you can reduce the partner strife, work on your attitude. Try and view your partner’s positive qualities and comment on them.

Catch your partner doing something good and tell them you appreciate them for what they are doing. It can’t hurt. And it can be added to the bucket of family resilience you’re filling up.

In 1976 The Orleans sang it out: "We've been together since way back when. Sometimes I never want to see you again. But I want you to know, after all these years. You're still the one I want whisperin' in my ear." Still the One

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