Contempt In A Relationship: Why It’s Killing Your Love

Picture this: You come home from a long day at work. All day long, your cubicle-mate Susan wouldn’t stop showing you pictures of her miniature poodle, Brad microwaved fish for lunch again (c’mon, Brad), and it was nobody’s birthday, so you didn’t even get cake. You are overwhelmed. You are exhausted. You are cake-less. All you want is to walk in the door of your home, grab the bag of chips and the tub of hummus, and watch three hours of Netflix while your partner gives you a foot massage and listens to you whine about Susan through mouthfuls of Stacy’s pita chips. But then you walk in the door and you see it: The sink full of dirty dishes you know you asked your partner to wash.contempt in relationships how to respond to contempt

You. Are. Furious.

In this moment, you have a choice. How do you let your partner know that you are angry? How do you communicate that to them? I don’t know your life, but let me take a guess anyway.

You might sigh. A disgruntled, loud, pointed sigh. Then you start washing the dishes, extra loudly, so they hear you. You might say, “I guess I’ll just do the dishes. I know how *hard* dishes are. And you were very busy scrolling through Instagram today. You just sit there and relax. You obviously need it.”

You might eye roll.  If you’re a real pro, you might even throw in a well-timed incredulous snort, or maybe even a head shake to really drive your point home.

You might call your partner names. Lazy. Selfish. Infantile.

All of these reactions — The nasty sarcasm, the eye rolling, the sighs, the mocking — are considered contempt. What is contempt? Basically, it’s a way to convey superiority, disgust, and condescension. We all do it from time to timehey, we’re human but it is really destructive to your relationship and your health.

In fact, research by Dr. John Gottman shows that contempt is literally making you sick. People who experience contempt in a relationship are more likely to suffer from infectious diseases and a weak immune system. It also doesn’t bode well for the longevity of your relationship. Married couples who are contemptuous to one another are more likely to get divorced. Basically, contempt makes you sick and destroys your relationship. Major bummer.

Here’s the kicker: You know all of this. This is stuff we learn as kids. We know that name-calling and eye rolls and hostile sarcasm are bad, but we do it anyway. Why?! Well, again, I don’t know your life, but let me take a guess anyway.

You probably just want to be heard. Let that sink in.

You want to be heard.

(You probably also want that foot massage and clean dishes, but we’ll get to that.)

You had a rough day. You’re tired. You are feeling irritable and sensitive and disconnected. When you come home and see that your partner didn’t do the dishes, you might feel unsupported. You might feel alone. In that moment, you probably needed your partner to show up for you. You probably feel angry. But underneath that anger is your deep need to have your partner be there for you. That is so valid.

Think about this, though. Your partner doesn’t know that Susan made you watch a 10-minute slideshow of Princess the Poodle. Your partner doesn’t know about Brad’s tuna casserole. They don’t know that all you want is some cake, a foot massage, and clean dishes. All your partner knows is that you are eye-rolling and snorting and sighing and name-calling over dishes. They don’t know what’s underneath the dishes.

In those moments, your partner might be feeling really unloved. They might not know how to respond to contempt. They might be feeling ashamed. They are probably also feeling angry or “nagged,” but underneath that is their own deep need to feel worthy and loved and given some leeway from their teammate (that’s you!).

What a mess, right? You end up feeling alone and your partner ends up feeling hurt and that drives a wedge in your relationship and makes your immune system suck and you still don’t have cake and it’s all just a total mess. Ugh.

what causes feelings of contempt in a relationship

So, how do you keep contempt out of your relationship?

Dr. Gottman would say that it’s about “nurturing a culture of fondness and admiration.” Basically, creating a culture of love, support, and kindness in your relationship. One way to do this is to communicate your needs to your partner, gently and softly (even if you aren’t feeling very gentle or soft). Instead of eye rolling when the dishes aren’t done, trying saying something like:

  • I had a really tough day at work. It would be so helpful if you would help me with the dishes. I’m really overwhelmed and could use some extra support tonight.
  • I appreciate everything you do around here. I know you had a busy day too, and at the same time I would love some extra help with the dishes tonight. I am feeling so exhausted.
  • Hey…Wanna say “forget the dishes” and order takeout and watch Game of Thrones instead? Cool. Me too.

Another way to create a culture of fondness and admiration is to make it a habit to communicate your love and appreciation for your partner on a regular basis. Do this through your words, acts of service, physical affection, and open, honest conversations. 

If you’re finding that it feels way too hard (or even impossible) to communicate your needs softly and gently on a regular basis, that might be a sign that it’s time for a bigger conversation with your partner, or even with a professional, like a therapist. Couples therapy can be hugely helpful in figuring out new ways of communicating our emotions and needs. We all have hurts that can get in the way of us being able to communicate our needs effectively and there will be times when contempt in a relationship rears its ugly head. But it’s up to you and your partner to fight against it to keep yourselves and your relationship healthy. 

Now, go get yourself some cake. You deserve it.

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It’s been nearly 20 years since I first became interested in studying psychotherapy. I began practicing the scientific approaches to psychotherapy in 1997 and I was hooked from then on.

I earned my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family psychotherapy in 2004 and I am currently licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist MFT (LMFT#47653) with the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS).

I focus my practice upon the empirically-based and proven research methods of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

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