Paula Gurnett, C.C.C. November 5, 2021
Contempt: it’s one of the most toxic ways of communication that can destroy your relationship. It often appears as a result of unresolved anger that gets built up over time.
But what is contempt? And how might it be killing your relationship?
How do you and your partner share or process anger? Contempt happens when one or both partners bottle up their feelings. Instead of being able to share that they are angry, or explain why they are upset, they attack or undermine their partner.
Instead of having a discussion on why they are upset, the partner uses the weapon of contempt. Contempt undermines the other partner indirectly, causing them to feel unimportant, unloved, or insignificant.
● “Didn't your father teach you anything?"
● “You’re never on time, what’s wrong with you?”
● “Don’t you know that this store is closed on Sundays? Where is your brain?”
Contempt is full of harmful, critical language that makes one partner superior to another. These comments might invalidate a partner and goes beyond criticism.
Contempt might also show up in a person’s body language, such as eye rolling or ignoring the other, turning away with a shrug.
If this sounds familiar to what is happening in your relationship, it should be addressed immediately! Conflict happens in every relationship - but negative, critical comments like this can damage the emotional safety within the relationship and, ultimately destroy the relationship as a whole.
According to relationship experts John and Julie Gottman, contempt is the biggest predictor of divorce. It’s a negative power move that when used, makes the other partner feel inferior.
Here’s how to overcome contempt in your relationship:
Express how you are feeling. Avoid pointing fingers or using “you statements”. “You statements” might lead to your partner becoming defensive, as they can sometimes feel critical. Instead, focus on communicating how you feel and suggesting a solution. Invite your partner to do the same so you can create a solution together.
● “When [triggering event] happens, I feel [emotion]. Would you be interested if we [suggest a solution] instead?”
● “I’m feeling [how you feel], and I need [state a need]. Can we talk about a solution that works for both of us?”
● “I felt angry when we arrived at the restaurant and it was closed. I still feel a little stressed. Can we hug?”
2. Build a “culture of appreciation”. Look for positives about your partner in the things they say or do. Make a point to regularly express affection, gratitude, and appreciation for your partner.
● Spend five minutes daily expressing specific gratitude or compliments between you and your partner.
3. Listen with empathy and without interrupting. Understand that you and your partner might have experienced the same situation differently. Make a point to understand each other’s perspectives and feelings.
● Try not to be dismissive or offensive. Try not to belittle your partner. Instead, acknowledge their feelings.
● Instead of criticizing your partner, give them feedback. Talk about your perspective and make a suggestion or request.
4. Pay attention to your body language during an argument. You might notice yourself get tense, shrug, or cross your arms. These are all ways our bodies close ourselves from our partners. If you notice yourself doing that, try turning towards your partner and uncrossing your arms.
5. Seek professional guidance. If you or your partner still struggle to communicate, hiring an unbiased, professional couple’s therapist can help you both find a resolution.
Eliminating and overcoming contempt can rebuild the emotional safety and trust in your relationship. Relationship recovery allows both partners’ self-esteem and confidence to be nurtured, so that both partners can experience the truest and happiest love.
“Contempt is the sulfuric acid for love.”
– John Gottman -