Do you remember the wildly successful 90s television series Seinfeld? My husband and I still occasionally watch the reruns and laugh out loud at the antics of Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George. While the main characters on Seinfeld were often pretty crazy, some of the periphery characters on that program were so ridiculous that they were almost cartoon like (e.g., the Soup Nazi, Mr. Pederman, Babu, Uncle Leo and so many others). Perhaps the most ludicrous characters were Frank and Estelle Costanza, George’s parents. Those two would bicker about anything and everything! They were unbelievably insulting to one another, and neither of them could ever let one tiny little thing go.
While the Costanzas are fictional characters created to portray a stereotype in a comical way, married couples who ACTUALLY behave in a way reminiscent of the Costanzas do actually exist. In fact, many of them see me for weekly marriage counseling!
What I have observed in couples like the Costanzas are four fundamental elements in their negative communications. I call these elements the four ‘C’s: Contentiousness, Competition, Condescension, and Contempt. Discussions where the four ‘C’s emerge with regularity take a toll on married couples. And alas, the ultimate outcome of ‘C’-laden arguments is a tendency to simply avoid communication all together. Communication avoidance is never a good practice for married couples.
Let’s review the four ‘C’s more specifically. The basic definition of ‘C’ number one, Contentiousness, is a spontaneous tendency to be argumentative. It’s natural and necessary for married couples to argue sometimes. But when couples are contentious, they are inclined to argue unnecessarily. The following is an example of a contentious interaction.
Husband: (Thinking out loud) “The traffic ahead is brutal…I’m going to exit the highway at Main Street and take side streets home.”
Wife: “Our exit is two miles away…don’t exit here.”
Husband: “What’s the big deal?! I feel like exiting here, okay?” Why do you have to question everything I do?”
Wife: “Why do I have to question everything YOU do? You question everything I do! Now you know what I go through all the time…”
Husband: “What’s it to you whether I exit here or not? We’re in no hurry, so just lay off!”
Obviously, that was a completely unnecessary (and avoidable) argument! The couple in the example argued for no reason at all. Where they exited the highway made no difference whatsoever. The wife just simply could not let her husband make an irrelevant decision without challenging it. Because of contentiousness, a simple comment escalated into a full-blown argument.
Now let’s look at the next treacherous ‘C’: Competition. Most people understand what competition is. It’s simply a contest that continues until there is an obvious winner. But when a couple argues with the intention of winning, there is rarely a true winner. The satisfaction wrested from wearing one’s partner down with a superior presentation of valid points is usually nil.
In keeping with the first example which illustrated a couple arguing in a moving car, we will look at a case of competition in the same setting.
Husband: “That spot is too small for you to parallel park in…you should find another spot.”
Wife: “I think I can make it.”
Husband: “It’s too tight.” (Try to hear an ‘I told you so’ tone here)
Wife: “Leave me alone…I’ve got it.” (Wife continues to try backing the car into the parking spot but is unable to squeeze into the space and finally gives up trying)
Husband: “I told you the space was too small.”
Wife: “I know, Bob. (Sarcastically) Thanks so much for pointing that out.”
The husband just had to make sure his wife conceded his having been correct about the stupid parking space! The wife would probably be angry and embarrassed after such an interaction. And the entire interaction would almost surely provoke negative feelings on the part of the wife towards her husband, possibly for hours. If the husband could have kept his thoughts to himself, his wife would have concluded, pretty quickly, that she needed to find an alternate place to park and the couple could have avoided the destructive communiqué.
On to ‘C’ three: Condescension. We can all sense when someone is talking to us in a condescending way. It is insulting and very annoying. And in marriages in which both partners are supposed to be equally respected, condescension greatly hinders marital harmony. The following is an illustration of condescension.
Husband: (getting a dish down from the cupboard) “There is food stuck to this plate. Come here for a minute, Dear. I’d like to show you something.”
Wife: (Comes over to her husband) “What?”
Husband: (Taking a dirty dish from the sink) “Okay, watch carefully. First, turn on the water. Then take the sponge and put some soap on the sponge. Next rinse the dish under the running water, then wipe off the dish with the sponge and rinse it again. See? That’s how you wash a dish. Understand? I know it’s a difficult process, but you’ll get it!”
Wow! That was almost painful to write! The whole exchange was so obnoxious, how on earth could the wife not respond with anger? She may even feel outrage over her husband’s arrogance and disrespect. I don’t think we need to prove much further how destructive condescension is in marital communication.
The final ‘C’ is contempt. Contempt means ‘hatred’. That’s right: Hatred! When a couple’s communication devolves into contemptuous exchanges, the marriage is in big trouble. Married people (ideally) love each other. Using language that demonstrates feelings of contempt between spouses is destructive beyond measure. Need an example? Here you go:
Wife: “You idiot! I can’t believe how stupid you are. I told you to put food out for the dog. He didn’t eat all day!”
Husband: “Shut up! You’re such a bossy witch, do you know that?”
Wife: “I wouldn’t have to be so bossy if you used your brain once in a while.”
Husband: “Yeah, I must be pretty stupid to stay married to you – you’re such a spoiled brat!”
No matter how angry partners become with one another, it’s critical that their disagreements NEVER escalate to the point of name-calling! Remember, words are impossible to un-say. In the heat of the moment, when tempers are at their highest, we need to be extra careful not to say things we are sure to regret. It would be far better to take some time to collect one’s self and return to the conversation when composure returns.
If you find that your marital discussions lead you and your spouse into one or more of the four treacherous ‘C’s, marriage counseling which is focused on the development of healthy communication skills would probably be very helpful. Try hard not to reach the point of no return in your relationship. Good communication is often the life-raft you need when navigating the unpredictable waters of marriage.