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Is Contempt Poisoning Your Relationship?

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Is Contempt Poisoning Your Relationship?


Out of the four predictors of divorce: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. Contempt is by far the most destructive. Contempt can deeply poison a relationship, and according to Gottman, a psychologist who researched relationships for 40 years, if one or both partners are showing contempt toward the other, it’s a sign the relationship is in major trouble. 


Today, we’re going to be talking about Contempt. 


Do any of these statements sound familiar: 


Any conversation between us explodes. It’s like, “We are on completely different teams. We are enemies.”

She looks at me with disgust in her eyes that say, you can talk all you want. I don’t care. 

He is so condescending. Every word out of his mouth makes me feel like I am less than him.

I quite literally laugh at my partner’s inability to apologize. I know that it will escalate the conflict, but I can’t help it!

She rolled her eyes and yawned like she was tired. I cannot stand it. Especially when I am trying to explain why I feel hurt.

“Don’t start your emotional drama again.” 

If you can relate to these statements, you may be experiencing contempt in your relationship. It is like the checkmate to any constructive discussion.

People with contempt turn into bullies. And not the kind that physically hurts the spouse, but emotionally. Contempt is like bullying each other with emotional nastiness and disgust. It’s hitting below the belt in arguments, it’s purposefully saying hurtful things because you’re in pain, and maybe you want your partner to be in pain too. Don’t let this become a habit in your relationship.  

When communicating with contempt, the results can be cruel. Mocking others or treating them with disrespect, condescension, or sarcasm are all forms of contempt. So are mimicking, name-calling, hostile humor, and body language such as eye-rolling and sneering. Contempt comes from a place of superiority and makes the other feel inferior. Deep down, it stems from a sense of feeling unappreciated and unacknowledged in the relationship. Whether in words or behaviors, contempt escalates the conflict situation. It is no more about the issue that started the argument but an attack on the worthiness of a person—almost like saying, “You are insignificant” or, “I’m better than you. And you are lesser than me.”


Perhaps you were once a couple that was kind to each other and in love, and now you have begun to talk about each other in the most dismissive, disparaging terms. It is because unsettled anger and resentment have spawned disgust, producing cold contempt.


So, remember, bottled-up anger leads to contempt. So if you’re experiencing contempt in your relationship, then the next question is, what situation or situations have happened to make you so angry? 


Contempt is a unique issue in a relationship because it is generally rooted in unexpressed anger that festers and grows or sticky resentment. When you're talking openly with your partner, disagreements naturally come up. The problem is when the disagreements become nasty and mean. And it can’t all be about “why your partner didn’t take the trash out. No, there’s hidden and bottled anger lurking beneath, poisoning the way you or your partner communicate with each other. But if you're holding something in—and you know it exists, but you haven’t had the time to really talk constructively about it, own it, and explore it—you could be directing anger at them every time you speak to them. 


Clearly, this isn't one of love's better aspects, but it isn't uncommon for partners to feel this way in relationships. 


You might be spending too much time together and getting irritated more often, or there might be a hurtful event from the past that you're still holding onto.


How is contempt different than criticism? 


It can be understood as the dark destination of the four predictors of divorce. Contempt is the catalyst for a relational collapse.

I think of contempt as an exaggerated form of cancerous criticism. It’s as if criticism took steroids. Contempt differs from criticism. In criticism, you believe that the problem is with your partner. Contempt is a further cognitive elaboration.

The problem is with your partner because of their inherent unworthiness. Contempt in marriage seeks to explain the failure of criticism to impact and influence by attributing it to the partner’s fundamentally irreversible character flaws. The partner is typically (for example) either too stupid, too damaged, or evil, and that is why they are incapable of change. 


The contemptuous spouse attacks from a lofty perch of moral, emotional, or intellectual superiority. When contempt eclipses criticism, the virulent message you are giving your partner is that they are loathsome and disgusting. They are beyond redemption.


Is contempt in your relationship? Let’s dig into some specific signs that contempt has crept into your relationship. 


1. Disrespectful Communication Habits

  • Not listening

  • Interrupting

  • Finishing their sentences


These are just three of the many ways contempt can be expressed during communication. Such behaviors are like a declaration that the other person — and their feelings — don’t matter.

2. Competing and Correcting

Contempt can make partners feel like opponents. We treat them like someone who has annoyed us on social media. And we “correct” them. And we belittle them by patronizing them and pointing out when and how they are “wrong.” And then, we point out how we are better.

3. Criticisms, Mockery, Name-Calling 

This just may be the most obvious sign. Let’s say you just got dressed to attend a social gathering together. Your partner asks, “Is that what you’re wearing?” This is not an innocent or helpful question about fashion. It’s a mean-spirited low blow. This trend leads down a slippery slope to mockery. What was once playful teasing has now become ridicule. Name-calling during an argument in person or via text in anyways counts as contempt. 

4. Non-Verbal Cues

Examples include eye-rolling, deep sighs, and general body language. In addition, how you say something can mean more than the words themselves. The tone of voice, inflection, sarcasm, etc., all can play a major role in fomenting discord.

5. “Fixing” Whatever Your Partner Does

Nothing the other person does is good enough, so they have to “fix” it. This is often accompanied by plenty of the above non-verbal cues.

What to do if contempt is in your relationship?


  1. One way to stop contempt or disrespect from wreaking havoc on your relationship is to first accept that contempt is happening in your relationship. Accept where your relationship is currently at. Once you can admit to yourself that your relationship is in a tough place, instead of denying or hiding from it, then you can really begin to make positive changes. 

  2. Help your relationship by asking yourself where the bottled-up anger and resentment stem from. Was it formed over time through small missteps, or does it originate from one larger betrayal or incident? Do some journaling and meditate on this question. Where is this bottled-up anger coming from? If you can’t find the origin on your own, utilize resources such as counselors and therapists. 

  3. Help Soften Conflicts by Admitting Vulnerabilities. Softening happens when more profound vulnerabilities behind the hard emotions (such as anger and contempt) are shared in a gentle tone. For example, sharing that, “I feel annoyed and stupid when my actions are corrected, and what I need is your appreciation and faith in me” instead of contempt and criticism. It would enable the other partner to better understand and empathize with the concern. Once you have discovered what your bottled-up anger is stemming from, you can begin to communicate with your partner, thus owning your feeling with “I” statements.

  4. Reframe the way you see them. To stop contempt from ruining your relationship. Visualize your partner as your friend, your best friend, someone that you love. Even if right now you may be upset with them. Someone that you don’t want to hurt. Maybe visualize them as something cute, a bunny, a child on the playground, or your grandparents. Somebody that you have respect for. You wouldn’t speak to any of the above with a nasty tone. If you visualize your partner as a monster, then you’ll have no problems speaking to them like one. Nobody is perfect, and if you truly believe that your partner is a monster, then you shouldn’t stay in the relationship. More than likely, your partner is a human being with imperfect habits, just like the rest of us. Have the things they’ve done turned them into a monster so evil that you cannot see past it any further? Is there not an inkling of beauty within your partner that you can grasp onto? Hold onto that beauty and the good times in your relationship as you explore your anger and darkness. And as you work to heal, work on not creating a harsh dichotomy between the good and evil parts of your partner. Accept that there is a middle between the dark and light. 

  5. Accept Your Role in conflicts. Everyone has a dark side. We all have insecurities. Basically, there isn’t a single person on the planet who is immune from feeling contempt. Explore your own thoughts, motivations, and behaviors. Be honest with yourself about the kind of dark feelings you may have towards your partner. Whatever you resist persists. If you accept these feelings, you’ll have a chance to be able to work through them. And then, ask yourself how these negative feelings could be portrayed outwards towards your partner in conversations and arguments and what that would feel like being on the other side of them. This will help you own your part in the contempt process. 

  6.  Create a Culture of Gratitude. Work with your partner to cultivate new patterns and approaches filled with kind words and gratitude. Complement each other more. A positive sentiment override acts like a warm blanket in times of conflict. Couples who invest positively in the non-conflict hours of the relationship with the sharing of admiration and gratitude tend to give the benefit of the doubt easily to the partner’s negative emotions. They can look at it with a positive perspective, such as, “It must be difficult for her with two kids on hand. Let me see how I can help.”


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