What Is Contempt in Relationships and How to Handle It

What you need to know about the communication style that can ruin a relationship
contempt in relationships

Many things can lead to a breakup or divorce. Infidelity, incompatibility, or any type of abuse are just a few examples. Another main indication that a relationship is doomed is contempt. Contempt in relationships is a form of extreme criticism that shows up as disrespect and disdain for your partner, and research has shown that it can be the number one predictor of divorce. 

Keep reading to learn what contempt in relationships looks like, as well as the effects it can have on your relationship. 

What is contempt in relationships? 

“Contempt in relationships is when one partner is consistently being condescending, rude, and sarcastic towards their partner or others,” explains Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired. 

“The behavior, even when checked, has no sign of changing, and the person shows no desire to adjust the behavior no matter the impact.”

Psychologist Dr. John Gottman considers contempt to be the most harmful of the four communication styles which can be real relationship killers. These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, what Dr. Gottman calls “the four horsemen”. 

His research found that contempt is the number one predictor of divorce because it can erode the respect, admiration, and connection that are vital for a healthy and happy relationship. 

But contempt is different from day-to-day frustrations or complaints — both of which are completely normal, even in healthy relationships. Rather, contempt shows up when negative feelings have been left to fester for a long time. 

“I hear the word used more than I think people are truly at that breaking point, to be honest. Most couples will say contempt when they are just rather fed up, frustrated, or feel unheard by their partner,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“I make the distinction because it’s truly hard to move from contempt back to a trusting, loving, and playful feeling for your partner. Contempt typically means your partner's criticism has crossed a line that has you challenging your shared values,” she adds.

What are examples of contempt in a relationship?

“One partner constantly shows up as a ‘bully’ in the relationship, being sarcastic and mean,” explains Seeger DeGeare. 

“They use words and body language to bring their partner down with negative statements or to talk about others in a way that is harsh and judgemental.” Signs of contempt in relationships include: 

  • Eye-rolling and/or sneering 

  • Insults and/or name-calling

  • Sarcasm

  • Condescension 

  • Mocking

What causes feelings of contempt? 

Contempt often comes from a place of feeling superior to someone else or feeling like the other person is worthless. But in some cases, it can stem from a deep frustration, says Seeger DeGeare.

“I see one partner arrive at a place of contempt when they experience significant repetitive behaviors that they bring up go ignored,” she explains.

“The significance of the behavior often is gaged by it having a major impact on the relationship, perhaps constant criticism towards their spouse or children, or maybe gossip and negative talk about friends or family members but is unwilling to either work on that internally or address the situation with the person.” 

How to fix contempt in a relationship

“Contempt will only change in a relationship when the person understands the impact of their behavior and starts to address it,” says Seeger DeGeare.

“In a couples therapy session, the therapist would immediately interrupt the behavior and challenge the person to go deeper by use of validation and ‘handing them back their defenses’,” she adds. 

“The therapist might say, ‘I am going to stop us right here, I hear you say your partner is stupid for how they did the dishes, I wonder if you have a moment in your day that you feel stupid about how you did something?’ If the client brushes this off, the therapist might say, ‘Well, I wonder if you have anyone in your life who spoke to you this way? Maybe it even seems like a normal thing to say to someone. Does that sound more familiar?’ This would be a way to start to access the deeper meaning and emotions behind the behavior.” 

The key, she says, is to encourage the partner to look inwards and address any deeper insecurities that could be causing the contempt. “It’s often a learned behavior to control a situation,” Seeger DeGeare explains. 

“For example, if they are calling their partner “stupid” often, they might have a deep childhood wound where they felt like they were not smart, or even had a parent who would emotionally manipulate or even abuse them by bringing them down,” she adds. “So the fix for contempt in a relationship is on the willingness of the partner to start the healing of the underlying hurts that are motivating their harsh words.”  

Seeger DeGeare also points out that this exercise is a lot easier to do in a therapy session. “If you have arrived at contempt, this behavior has gone on for a significant amount of time,” she explains. Although it will be harder to self-examine what is causing this contempt, it’s still a helpful exercise to do solo. 

As with most relationship problems, addressing contempt starts with open and honest communication. “I would start with the other partner setting clear boundaries on values for the relationship and how they speak to each other,” recommends Seeger DeGeare. 

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