University of Washington Psychologist John Gottman says he can predict with 95% accuracy whether a marriage will end in divorce within 15 years by microanalyzing a videotape of the pair talking for an hour. His secret is paying attention to the number of times in the conversation the couples participate in what he calls the Four Horsemen:
* Defensiveness: A response like "It's not my fault, it's your fault!" to a real or imagined attack.
* Stonewalling: The silent treatment. This seems to be more common in men than women.
* Criticism: Labeling a partner with a negative trait, such as "You're selfish."
* Contempt: Labeling a partner with a negative trait as if the blamed person is inferior and the criticizer is superior. Contempt is often shown through body language: tone of voice, facial expressions, and body movement. Just a roll of the eyes can signal that someone considers themselves above you.
The fourth danger sign, contempt, is the greatest predictor of divorce. It's the single most important sign that the marriage is in trouble. In fact, Gottman reports that having your significant other hold you in disgust is so stressful that it can have a negative effect on your immune system.
As reported in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, Gottman says that you might think that criticism would be the most harmful because it's a "global condemnation of a person's character." But contempt is more harmful, he says, because "it's trying to put that person on a lower plane than you. It's hierarchical."
People who consistently think of themselves as superior to others sometimes have narcissistic traits or a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. You can find plenty of info about NPD in this blog and others.
You can set limits on what you will and will not tolerate in a relationship. Limits are about what you do to take care of yourself when someone calls your value system into question. For example, you can let someone know that if he calls you stupid one more time, you will leave the room.
But you can't set a limit about what someone thinks. That goes for this example and any other; for example you can demand that your teenager do tasks around the house before she goes out with friends, but you can't make her value responsibility.
What you can do is remind yourself that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Sometimes the people who love us the most know the triggers that hurt us the most. What does it say about someone who pushes your most painful buttons, yet claims to love you? It says much more about them than you. So not only can you not control their thoughts, you don't need to control their thoughts. Only yours. Strangely, it is only when you give up control that you obtain it.