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What is contempt and why is it so bad for your relationship?

I sometimes see couples who have a lot of contempt in their relationship. I want to whisper in the contemptuous partner’s ear and warn that contempt is the most destructive way to communicate.



Research shows that contempt is often the pre-cursor to the end of a relationship. Because of the feeling of superiority one partner claims over the other, there can be no equality when it is present. Contempt’s main message is, “You are worthless.” The person on the other end of the contempt is permanently labeled unacceptable. It shows up as disrespect, mocking, cruelty pretending to be humor, coldness, dismissiveness, put-downs, sarcasm, name-calling, eye rolling, and sneering. If the tone of what was said could be followed by, “You idiot,” that’s contempt.


This behavior is the opposite of what a relationship needs so it can to thrive. Relationships need emotional warmth, empathy, accessibility, and responsiveness. In order to create strong connection and emotional depth, partners need to be able to share their vulnerabilities with each other. The result of making contemptuous statements is the other partner feels lesser than, humiliated, dismissed, ridiculed, and minimized. Sometimes the hurt partner tells me that it doesn’t matter what he or she feels, thinks, or says, because it is of no consequence to the contemptuous partner, and the painful behavior will continue. After a period of time, the partner on the receiving end of contempt usually shuts down and withdraws. We need empathy from our partners, not the continuing hurt of contempt.


When I see contempt happening, I wonder what is going on for the contemptuous partner. Are you hiding from a deep-seated insecurity of your own, so you turn it on your partner? Are you thinking you are more entitled than your partner? Did you learn this in your own contemptuous family? Are you hoping this is the way to gain some control?  If you are engaging in this type of behavior, I wish you would ask yourself these questions. For your relationship’s sake, for your partner’s, and for your own. Being contemptuous tells you that you have room to grow.


If you are in a relationship in which contempt is present, remember that both partners need to speak to each other in respectful ways and, most importantly, be prepared to listen to each other. Becoming aware of mistaken behaviors is the first step toward change. Take the courageous step of asking your partner about the impact of your contempt. I have seen couples, once aware, change this pattern. If you are the subject of contempt, take your own courageous step of telling you partner about your hurt and why you shut down. Reach out for help. Reach toward each other.

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