The absence of delight in your partner creates an emptiness in a marriage that ruins love. According to Dr. Gottman’s research on long-lasting marriages, the number one predictor as to whether a marriage would last was the presence or absence of contempt.
The music of marriage continues to play as partners dance to the beats of love and respect. But if the drums of respect leave and the sirens of contempt enters, the capacity for communication no longer exists.
Chase: We bought you a new car two years ago and you rarely take care of it. I wash my truck every week.
Heather: It’s hard for me to wash my car.
Chase: I wash my truck and it’s bigger than your car.
Heather: Would you help me?
Chase: Do you help me wash my car?
Heather: I haven’t yet, but I’d help you if you help me.
Chase: Oh, I’m sorry, but I’m not a little princess who believes she can treat her things poorly and then go out a buy a new car every few years. Go back to your castle.
Contempt is different from criticism, because the main intention is to insult and psychologically abuse your partner.
It’s obvious from this conversation that Chase’s intention is to demean his wife. He is coming from a place of moral high ground. Contempt stems from a sense of superiority over your partner.
The Telltale Signs of Contempt
Recognizing contempt is easy. The common signs include: 1
- Insults and name calling – Bitch, bastard, jerk, wimp, fat, ugly, stupid, etc. Some come up with even cruder words which I refuse to type.
- Hostile humor – “He hasn’t lost weight because he’s been too busy eating pizza.”
- Mockery – When your partner’s words are ridiculed to show they are not trusted or respected, such as Chase repeating “it’s hard to wash my car” back to Heather in a high-pitched voice. It comes off as teasing, but with the intention that only one person will be laughing.
- Body language – Eye rolling, sneering, and curling the upper lip. In Dr. Gottman’s research, a couples’ facial expressions was often the biggest clue something was wrong between them. A wife could say, “I’m listening,” but this could come off as sarcasm or contempt if she is rolling her eyes.
- Sarcasm – “Please tell me your expert opinion on how to be a perfect husband.” The tone of what is said gives it away.
- Belligerence – “What are you going to do, shoot me?” This is a form of aggressive hostility because it contains a threat.
Contempt is really about harm, and it is the heart of failure within most marriages. It creates division, not union.
Contempt is sort of like termites eating away at the house of your relationship. This happens because spouses who neglect the health of their marriage unintentionally create a culture that’s full of stress and vulnerable to criticism and contempt.
Unresolved issues escalate and impact other areas of the marriage. As a result, couples stop respecting each other.They stop complimenting and expressing appreciation and attraction.
While it’s easy to be critical of your spouse at times, it’s harder to slip into contempt. Dr. Gottman’s studies show that contempt is practically non-existent in happy marriages.
Contempt Kills The Story of Us
When contempt overwhelms a marriage, it bulldozes the story of your relationship and blocks your ability to remember the positive qualities of your partner.
“This immediate decay of admiration is an important reason why contempt ought to be banned from marital interactions.” – Dr. John Gottman
And since you can’t recall anything positive, you enter into the Divorce-Predicting Feedback Loop.
The more contemptuous and defensive a couple becomes, the more flooding occurs. This makes it harder to hear and accept repair attempts. And since the repair attempts go unheard, it leads to more flooding and more of the Four Horsemen until one partner withdraws and the marriage fails.
Contempt is like a fungus in a petri dish. It grows with negative thoughts of your partner.
Contempt is Created by Shame
How does contempt enter a relationship?
When I think of the word contempt, I think of the word hatred. It holds so much power and it is often birthed from a response to harm. This could be an addiction, an affair, withdrawal, neglected needs, broken trust, or so many other things.
And when one is harmed, there tends to be contempt, especially if it’s backed by a narrative of repeated offenses. I believe contempt comes from a place of woundedness. As the saying goes, “Hurt people, hurt people.”
Our harsh words towards the one we love are typically “justified” by a strong internal narrative that supports our “reasoning” for being contemptuous.
I believe contempt is a patterned way we deal with shame in ourselves.
As Brene Brown put it, “shame underpins 99% of what we [clinical therapists] see in the room.”
Shame is what we feel when we feel unlovable. “It’s a master emotion that calls into question our very ability to be connected with other people.” – Brene Brown
Contempt is a strategy of disconnecting 2 from the pain of shame. It’s what Brene Brown calls a Shame Shield. It protects us from our vulnerable self that fears we are unlovable.
So as a result, we turn against our partner. We try to disconnect from our own shame, by shaming our partner.
Shame grows exponentially with contempt, negative thoughts, and withdrawal.
It’s practically impossible to solve problems in your marriage when you’re telling your partner you’re disgusted with them. Contempt and shame lead to more conflict than reconciliation.
Where there is shame, there is contempt. Where there is contempt, there is shame.
Brene Brown explained shame as a feeling of someone who is dying of thirst with their feet in the ocean. “You have all this water around you that you think will bring you life, but the salt water will only kill you faster. “ This also sounds like contempt. You think it will make things better. Maybe make your partner finally change. You hope your partner will finally realize how hurt you are, but contempt only kills your relationship faster.
And the toxic cycle continues because we rationalize our blaming with an ongoing negative narrative of our partner. If unaddressed, both partners eventually withdraw and the marriage dies.
The Hopelessness of Contempt
When you are contemptuous of your partner, you no longer have hope they can change.
It goes from saying things like,”it’s not okay for you to be late to our date night,” and “it’s not okay for you to be late to our kid’s soccer game,” to things like,“you’re completely irresponsible. It’s like I have to babysit another kid.”
When your partner is irresponsible, where do you go from there?
Since you made it a part of who they are, there’s nothing they can do to fix it. It’s in their character. As you can see contempt puts your relationship in more trouble because it blocks change.
It takes a marriage down the marital rapids towards the waterfall of divorce.
7 Remedies for Contempt
In Dr. Gottman’s research on couples who last, he discovered a variety of ways to prevent contempt from entering a marriage. Below are seven of them.
1. Tell Your Partner What You Need, Not What’s Wrong With Them
The best approach to ending contempt is to stop reciprocating harm. You need to avoid taking a superior moral stance.
Instead, gently approach your partner with precise complaints following Dr. Gottman’s Complaint Formula – I feel (emotion) about (very specific event) and I need (state a positive need).
When you complain, I find it helpful to ask myself, “how can I give my partner a very detailed road map to my needs?”
By expressing feelings that avoid contempt, hostility, or blaming, you stop the cycle of attacking each other. That is the only way you are going to make your marriage feel safer and less isolating.
Conflict’s purpose is to improve emotional connection by respecting needs and each partner’s uniqueness. So focus on your needs, not your partner’s deficiencies.
2. Seek to Understand by Asking Questions
It’s best to respond to each other’s complaints with open-ended questions. While this may take hard work, it drastically improves conflict. Instead of getting defensive or stating what you need when your partner says what they need, get curious.
Truly listen and seek to understand exactly what your partner needs or is feeling. You could ask, “how can I make you feel more respected in our marriage?” or “that feels really important for you, can you tell me more about what it means to you?”
This opens up your partner’s heart, instead of shutting it down.
3. Be Empathetic
Letting your partner know that you understand them, even in little ways, is a powerful way to heal a relationship.
“Empathy is a hostile environment for [contempt].” – Brene Brown
Contempt cannot exist with empathy – its goal is to block empathy entirely. It drives blame and disconnection. Empathy creates connection. Learn how to be empathic here.
4. Change your internal script
Contempt is fueled by simmering negative thoughts of your partner. This is a result of your differences not being accepted, and because regrettable incidents in the past have not been healed.
So you replay all of the hurtful things that have been done to you and you plan vengeful comments the next time we see your partner. You might tell yourself:
“I can’t forgive what Susan did.”
“I’ll show him.”
“I’m leaving this marriage. I’ve had enough.”
These thoughts prime you to be contemptuous. They create a self-fulfilling prophecy if they are not changed.
Instead, take some deep breaths. Soothe yourself. Focus on the positive that is there. If needed, go to your partner and express a complaint about what you need to feel better about your relationship.
I’ve found part of the reason couples do this is due to unresolved conflict from the past. I have couples work through their laundry list of past offenses, and as we start to get through the list, the couple starts respecting each other more and more.
One of the best ways to change this script is to…
5. Create a culture of Fondness and Admiration
Contempt erodes love in marriages. Love lasts when partners feel respected.
Before I start working with couples who are submerged in contempt, I ask them how they met and fell in love. Their stories give me signs of hope.
When Chris begins to tell me about how Tina and him met 17 years ago, he becomes energized.
“I remember like it was yesterday. I was invited to my family friends 4th of July party.”
Tina interrupts, “it was amazing weather and great music.”
“It was,” Chris continues. “During the night, we kept eyeing each other and I kept trying to find a way to get next to her.”
“I was so nervous that I didn’t move much, which made it hard. I wanted to talk to him, but he was so cute!”
Despite all of the years of pain and fighting, the couple still holds a spark of warm feelings for each other. The vital ingredient to heating things back up is to blow on those sparks of positive feelings about each other.
When couples make an intentional effort to recognize and express things they like about each other, their relationship improves.
To do this, catch your partner doing something you like and express appreciation. Take time to notice all the tiny things that contributor to the relationship.
Dr. Gottman created an exercise that is really helpful to start this off. It’s called “Three Things I Like About You.”
Select a characteristic below:
For each word above, think about an incident when your partner displayed this characteristic and how it made you happy. Take turns sharing these traits and events with your partner.
Another tool is to take Dr. Gottman’s Seven Week Fondness and Admiration Challenge. Check it out here.
6. Learn to send and accept repair attempts
Most conflict conversations between couples go off the rails. It happens in every relationship. The difference between the couples who last and the couples who break-up is how they repair. Learn how to repair here.
7. Commit to a Contempt Free Marriage
Will you take the oath? The oath of intentionally saying, “contempt does not have a place in this marriage.”
Will you tell your partner, “I commit myself to be in a marriage with you without contempt”?
This way, when there is contempt, when it inevitably pops its head in, your partner and you can agree that the conversation cannot continue. Because contempt will never lead to reconciliation. It only leads to condemnation. It breeds judgment and division.
You’re going to struggle with contempt with your partner. And you must choose how. You’re going to want to hide it, and you’re going to experience the shame of “I’m too much” or “I’m not enough.”
You have to be courageous enough to intentionally engage each other. The antidote to contempt is to connect and respect each other.
No matter what you do, communication will break down at some point. Conflict is inevitable. And so are hurt feelings. But when a couple has a stockpile of respect for each other, they give each other the benefit of the doubt. They know how to repair.
Part of respecting your partner means respecting yourself by expressing your own hurt. Bottling your resentment for past problems and simmering the negative thoughts will only ruin your marriage.
Making love last is a team effort. Remember that couples who unintentionally neglect their marriage create room for contempt. Both you and your partner are responsible for keeping your marriage thriving.
The foundation of your marriage is a strong friendship built on the soil of respect. With those two factors, you have trust; and with trust, you create a safe place for both of you to be intimate.
Have you made a commitment to create a contempt-free marriage?