What is Contempt in Relationships?
Last week I wrote about Stonewalling, which is one of the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as researcher John Gottman refers to them.
In his findings, studying thousands of couples, the 4 Horsemen are the behaviors that most strongly indicate that a relationship will end in divorce or separation.
Statistics speak volumes when it comes to relationships so let’s dive into the 2nd Horseman, contempt.
What does it look like, and how do we tame that wild beast?
I remember the first time I recognized contempt in a couple I was coaching early on. They would swing from language that was supportive and loving into pretty nasty words and behaviors of contempt.
When communications around sexual frequency broke down, leaving them stuck in a disagreement, expressions of contempt were their go to habit. It was clear that the intimacy they were seeking was never going to grow until they could recognize the destructive nature of contempt.
Contempt is perhaps the most destructive of all relationship behaviors.
When we treat our partners with contempt, we are sending a clear message that we do not value or respect them. This can have devastating effects on the health and longevity of a relationship.
Understanding the Impact of Contempt on Couples
Contempt can take many forms, from name-calling and insults to sarcasm and eye-rolling. It often arises when we feel angry, frustrated, or disappointed with our partner. Instead of addressing the issue in a healthy and productive way, we allow our emotions to get the better of us, and we lash out with contemptuous behaviors.
The problem with contempt is that it creates a toxic cycle of negativity that can be very difficult to break. When we treat our partners with contempt, they are likely to respond with defensiveness or withdrawal, or as we learned last week, stonewalling. This, in turn, can make us even more contemptuous, and the cycle continues.
The first example of contempt with my coaching couple was eye rolling, when one of them shared their thoughts or feelings about sexual frequency. The second expression of contempt was snide, under the breath, comments when one of them was talking. This type of response clearly communicated a lack of respect for the other person’s feelings and opinions.
This cycle eroded the emotional connection between them. They both felt lonely, resentful, and disconnected. Their relationship didn’t offer them a place of retreat from the world. It had instead become a war zone that was impacting their mental health. One of them struggled with ongoing anxiety, and the other was on constant high alert for the stress of conflict.
Recognizing & Acknowledging Contemptuous Behavior
Let’s look at the way contempt shows itself in a relationship:
- Eye-rolling: This is a common and classic sign of contempt in a relationship. When one partner rolls their eyes in response to something the other partner says, it can communicate a lack of respect and a dismissive attitude.
- Sarcasm: When one partner uses sarcasm in response to something the other partner says, it can be a sign of contempt. Sarcasm can come across as mocking or belittling, which can be hurtful and damaging to the emotional connection between partners.
- Name-calling: When one partner uses derogatory names or insults in response to something the other partner says, it can be a sign of contempt. This type of behavior can be hurtful and disrespectful, and it can erode the emotional connection between partners over time.
- Dismissive body language: When one partner crosses their arms, turns away, or makes other gestures that communicate a lack of interest or respect, it can be a sign of contempt. This type of behavior can communicate a lack of empathy and understanding, which can be damaging to the emotional connection between partners.
- Criticism: While criticism is not the same thing as contempt, it can often be a precursor to contempt in a relationship. When one partner criticizes the other in a harsh or judgmental way, it can create resentment and hostility, which can eventually turn into contempt.
Drawing A Line in the Sand
The couple I was coaching had become habituated to contempt because it fell within the familiar zone of their behavior patterns. Contempt became acceptable for them during conflict.
It was time for them to draw a new line in the sand that they would not cross, no matter how heated emotions got.
They started to recognize the destructive nature of contempt and made a commitment to treat each other with respect and kindness, even when they were angry. They had to step back and learn healthier ways to express their emotions, like using “I” statements and active listening.
Most importantly, they stepped out of mutual blame and came together as a team in order to address the underlying issues that are causing the contemptuous behaviors. They made the very important decision to seek outside help in order to do that.
In the end, they overcame their pattern of contempt and it was only then, that their intimacy began to grow again.
Strategies for Breaking the Habit of Contempt
Breaking the habit of contempt can be challenging, but it’s possible with commitment and effort from both partners. Here are some strategies that couples can use to break the cycle of contempt in their relationship:
- Recognize and acknowledge the problem: The first step in addressing contempt is to recognize and acknowledge that it’s a problem in the relationship. Both partners should be willing to take responsibility for their part in the dynamic and commit to working on the issue.
- Practice active listening: Active listening is a technique where you listen to your partner’s perspective without judgment or interruption. It can be a powerful way to show empathy and understanding and break the cycle of contemptuous communication.
- Replace negative behaviors with positive ones: When a partner feels contempt towards their partner, it can be helpful to consciously replace negative behaviors with positive ones. For example, instead of rolling your eyes or making a sarcastic comment, try to show empathy for their point of view, (even if it’s not your own). This can help to build a more positive and supportive dynamic in the relationship.
- Practice gratitude: One way to break the cycle of contempt is to focus on the positive aspects of the relationship. Make a habit of expressing gratitude for the things that your partner does well or that you appreciate about them. This can help to shift the focus away from negative behaviors and build a more positive emotional connection.
- Seek professional help: In some cases, breaking the habit of contempt may require the help of a professional relationship coach. A therapist can help both partners to identify the underlying issues that are contributing to the contemptuous behavior and provide tools and strategies for addressing the issue.
Breaking the habit of contempt can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort.
In a world so desperately in need of loving kindness, our contribution to a better world begins at home.
Ready to start rebuilding your relationship? Schedule a Discovery Call with me today and learn how to overcome contempt and create a connection based on respect, kindness, and understanding.
Stay well and love deeply,
This post was previously published on Love, Sex, and Desire and is republished on Medium.
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