Contempt In Relationships: The Toxic Behavior You Must Avoid

Unhealthy Relationship | |
contempt in relationships
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Eye-rolling, mocking, name-calling, dropping sarcastic comments, and having a cynical attitude — you may have seen couples who behave like this, or, even worse, you may be treating your partner in this fashion. All of these toxic behaviors indicate a feeling of contempt. Contempt in relationships can be very challenging to deal with and even more difficult to heal from when left unaddressed. 

We discussed the impact of contempt with relationship counselor Ruchi Ruuh (Postgraduate diploma in Counseling Psychology), who specializes in compatibility, boundary, self-love, and acceptance counseling, to delve into this toxic behavior. Ruchi believes, “Contempt is a feeling of scorn and disgust combined with disrespect. It’s looking down on your partner from a place of superiority, using insults, names, sarcasm, and body gestures.” 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines contempt as “a strong feeling of disliking and having no respect for someone.” When one partner feels a sense of disdain or disgust for the other and shows it in several ways, it can lead to an extremely toxic situation. Contempt in relationships can take a toll on physical, mental, and emotional ways and have long-term consequences.  

What Is Contempt In A Relationship?

Firstly, let’s get this out of the way — contempt and resentment are two entirely different things. The key difference lies in how we perceive the other person’s status. Resentment is directed at people with a higher status, while contempt targets those with a perceived lower status. 

Now, let’s turn to the seminal study by John Gottman, who identified what he called, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” In Biblical terms, these four horsemen refer to different facets of the apocalypse to come i.e., conquest, war, famine, and death. Gottman uses his four ‘horsemen’ as a prediction of divorce. According to him, when criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling creep into a relationship, there is a higher likelihood of divorce. Many experts (including Gottman) believe that contempt in relationships is the worst of the four horsemen. So, what is relationship contempt, and how does it show up? Let’s find out.

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What Causes Contempt In A Relationship?

Ruchi says, “Contempt is caused by many factors, usually originating from deeper, painful issues from past interactions with the partner, such as unresolved conflicts, built-up resentment, power imbalances, and a lack of empathy/emotional connection. When issues are not resolved in a timely manner, they keep piling up and come out in a passive-aggressive fashion.” Here are some of the reasons that cause contempt to enter a relationship and affect someone’s personality:

  • If you have issues that have never been addressed or have been ignored for a while, resentment and contempt can enter your interactions with your partner 
  • Relationship contempt can become a habit. Once a person treats another with contempt, the situation only worsens. It’s almost like you have given yourself permission to treat your partner badly 
  • It is also believed that familiarity breeds contempt in relationships  
  • A lack of respect for your partner’s feelings can cause contempt and make them feel inferior
  • Disregard for your partner’s behavior and lack of empathy fuels contempt
  • Partners who feel compelled to behave contemptuously may be mirroring their own parent’s relationship

Related Reading: 17 Signs You Are In An Incompatible Relationship

Signs Of Contempt In A Relationship

Unsure if you have contempt for your partner or if they are behaving in a contemptuous manner? Here’s a quick checklist of the various forms of contempt in a relationship:   

1. Negative labels

Do you use terms such as ‘lazy’, ‘messy’, ‘crazy’, ‘selfish’, and ‘inconsiderate’ to describe someone’s personality? Typically, when you think or use such terms consistently, there is a tendency for the other person to behave in exactly the way you describe them. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy and generally removes all chances of improvement. 

Ruchi concurs that “experiencing contempt can manifest in the form of verbal communication, such as insults, name-calling, passive-aggressive comments, and mocking when your partner speaks. Communication usually revolves around these negative thoughts, finding faults, and making the other partner feel bad rather than resolving conflicts.”

2. Behavior is projected

If someone starts attributing their own feelings and emotions to someone else, it is called ‘Projection Identification’. For example, if your partner feels irritable and accuses you of being irritable, this is a case of projection. Or if you feel attracted to someone else, and start to accuse your spouse of fooling around, it’s a similar situation. Doing this regularly causes gaslighting and conflict escalation. It may also lead to the other person conforming to the very behavior that was being projected onto them. 

3. Contempt tends to increase over time 

Once the figurative ball of contempt starts rolling, there is very little the other person can do to stop it. Even changes in behavior won’t be enough to change this contempt stage of detachment. This is why experts insist that contemptuous behavior requires to be nipped in the bud as soon as one is aware of feeling/behaving in such a fashion. 

4. It changes the person feeling contempt too 

Contempt alters the very fabric of any relationship and is a silent relationship killer. For the person experiencing contempt, the constant negative emotions, such as anger, are detrimental to one’s own thoughts and self-image. Studies show that if you do not address contempt, it can also affect your nervous system, giving rise to low immunity, physical ailments, and exhaustion. 

5. Contempt can cause a ripple effect 

The truth is that if you spend enough time around a contemptuous person, you start responding to contempt, become influenced, and increase the conflict. 

Related Reading: Is Indifference Or Disrespect Equivalent To Cheating On Spouse?

6. Communicating in a disrespectful manner

If you or your partner exhibit any of the following behaviors, odds are its contempt at play. Cues include:  

  • Not listening and causing emotional pain
  • Constantly interrupting the other and showing poor communication skills
  • Not allowing the other person to finish their sentences or express their thoughts and talk things through

Basically, making it clear that the other person’s feelings are not valid is one factor that leads to conflict escalation. 

responding to contempt
You know there’s contempt when your partner is disrespectful to you at every step

7. Constantly correcting the other 

Experiencing contempt in a relationship makes both partners begin to feel like opponents. The tendency to constantly point out the other person’s flaws and correct them is both patronizing and detrimental. 

8. Ridicule and criticism become the norm 

Comments become loaded and hurtful things are said pretty often in a contemptuous relationship. Mockery, criticism, and mean-spiritedness take away any joy from the relationship and cause friction between both parties. 

9. Other non-verbal cues 

Apart from the tone of voice and inflection, there are many other signs and indications via body language that communicate discord between a couple. Ruchi adds, “Eye-rolls, deep sighs, flinching when touched, sarcasm, and even yawning when the other person is speaking indicate contempt in a non-verbal manner.” 

10. The love is lost 

When you feel contempt for your partner’s character, the other positive feelings disappear. Any fondness, caring, compassion, respect, or admiration you may have felt reduces as time passes. You no longer want to spend quality time together or enjoy their company. And this works both ways — for the person showing contempt and the one at the receiving end as well. 

Ruchi explains, “A complete lack of empathy for your partner, not being able to understand their perspective on an issue, dismissing their feelings and needs as something unimportant, criticism of a partner’s character rather than working toward resolving specific issues and a healthy relationship are all signs of apathy and contempt.”

Other signs that address contempt in a relationship are:

  • Lack of respect 
  • Feeling like you are competing with your partner and increasing conflict
  • Inability to have peaceful discussions 
  • Your partner feels less like an ally and more like an outsider 

Related Reading: 15 Warning Signs Your Partner Is Losing Interest In The Relationship

How Contempt Destroys A Relationship 

When feelings of contempt enter a relationship, things go wrong very fast. What starts as simple eye-rolling and teasing can soon change into sarcastic digs at the other’s appearance, mockery about their life choices, and feelings of disgust and hostility toward one partner. None of these feelings contribute to a relationship’s sense of belonging or romance. The very foundations of a relationship, such as respect, love, admiration, and safety, are at risk.

There are studies that show that contempt in marriage or any relationship can cause some real mental and physical ailments. When trapped in contemptuous relationships, people tend to report higher instances of falling sick and an overall decrease in immunity. Whether you are the partner who feels contempt for another or the one at the receiving end of such unfair treatment, the subconscious lets you know all is not well by reducing your immunity. As a result, you may fall ill more often and suffer from ailments such as colds, coughs, fever, and other infections.                 

Toxic Relationship

How Do You Resolve Contempt In A Relationship?

Unless the partner who feels contempt understands that there is a problem and is committed to making a change, not much will save such a relationship. No matter how much the other partner tries to change their ways to please the other, the situation can rarely take a turn for the better. 

Now, if the situation shows promise of reconciliation and both partners are willing to work toward repairing the relationship, there are some steps that can be taken to resolve contempt in a relationship. These can include:

1. Start small 

If you are lost in a mire of contemptuous feelings toward your partner and want to change things, one way to do so is to start small. A strategy most relationship counselors use is to take baby steps toward a healthy relationship by communicating kindly with your partner or becoming more aware of your body language when you talk and interact with them. This strategy can be used to incorporate ease into difficult conversations.

Communicating within a relationship can be fraught with tension and emotions. If you have an issue that needs to be discussed, it can be helpful to ease into it by:

  • Being aware of the language you are using
  • Avoiding criticism and sarcasm as a defense mechanism 
  • Being respectful of your partner’s feelings 
  • Being honest about what is troubling you 
  • Taking it one issue at a time and not overwhelming your partner with a litany of complaints

2. Express your needs 

When communicating with your partner, make sure you use statements that begin with ‘I’. When your conversation veers toward the ‘you’ territory, it seems like criticism and blame to your partner. Keep the emphasis on yourself, your feelings, and your needs, but remember to make time and keep space for the other person’s feelings and mental state. 

3. Learn to be non-defensive 

It takes two to make a relationship work, and part of that work involves listening. When you choose to be a good listener with an open mind and not get defensive or critical, a lot can be achieved toward reconciliation. Treat this time as an opportunity for the two of you to work together as allies and face the challenge as a team rather than focus on the trouble at play. 

4. Learn to self-regulate 

Contempt makes communicating without judgment extremely difficult, as you are constantly angry and upset with your partner. Taking a break from each other and managing your emotions before tackling any problems would be wiser. This could involve something as simple as taking a walk or even journaling.

Related Reading: Transparency In Relationships: Meaning, How To Show & Some Secret Tips

5. Make an effort 

When you feel fondness and respect for your partner, it becomes extremely difficult to be extra critical or sarcastic with them. In this spirit, a great sign of reconciliation is to cultivate feelings of appreciation and love for your partner. Remind yourself about what attracted you to them at the beginning of your relationship and consciously seek out ways to be grateful for what you have. Schedule that date night, start that heart-to-heart conversation, and keep moving forward. 

6. Don’t forget the role you play 

Ultimately, you are responsible for these feelings of contempt that have crept in. It is, therefore, time for you to accept responsibility for your behavior. Try not to make excuses and turn the blame on your partner. Instead, constructively address contempt and what is being felt and work things through with your partner. Loving relationships are built on accepting one’s role in a difficult situation. Now’s the time to say ‘sorry’ and mean it. 

Ruchi adds the following as ways to deal with contempt in a relationship: 

  • Boundaries: Understanding and establishing boundaries is fundamental in dealing with a contemptuous partner. Boundaries should be established with clarity and respect. You might have to reinforce these boundaries as required, discussing consequences in advance
  • Communication: Assertive, confident, and firm communication that you don’t like this behavior is required. Tell them it hurts the relationship. If your partner is supportive otherwise, they might try to work on this behavior
  • Self-reflection: Ask yourself, “What can I do differently?” or “How am I contributing to this behavior?” These questions can help you take some accountability, improve communication, and correct your own behavior/reaction

7. Consider couples counseling   

And finally, there is couples counseling, which is always the correct approach toward reconciliation. Therapy can help in several ways. You and your partner will have a safe space to express your feelings and understand your reactions. A trained mental health professional or couples therapist can assist in identifying challenges and discovering strategies to improve your relationship. Just remember, finding a couples therapist who will be a good fit for both parties is essential. 

Contempt, while a toxic behavior that can create multiple problems in relationships, is something that can be worked through. If the situation involves maturity, emotional intelligence and self-awareness, experts insist contempt can disappear.

As you and your partner begin spending time and dealing with all the difficult feelings and emotions at play, you may find that some areas of your relationship improve quickly while others require more effort. This is a complicated time for both of you and requires a certain amount of patience and grace while moving forward. It may also help to: 

forms of contempt in a relationship
Counseling is one of your best resorts to fix a toxic relationship
  • Accept your differences and respect them: Couples who recognize their differences and treat them as strengths find it easier to bounce back from hardship
  • Put in the effort when required: No relationship is entirely equal, and there will always come a time when one person needs to work harder than the other to make it work 
  • Make each other a priority: Keep in touch. Spend quality time. Remind each other why you both fell in love in the first place. Bring appreciation back into the equation
  • Be open and honest: Keep no secrets from each other and communicate with honesty. Healing contempt in relationships is difficult but not impossible

Key Pointers

  • Contempt in a relationship is that toxic trait that makes one think (and act) like they are better than the other
  • Contempt between romantic partners can be detrimental to both mental and physical health
  • There are several behavioral traits that make contempt in a relationship apparent
  • Contempt can go away, but only with the complete commitment and self-awareness of the person who feels these negative feelings

When you are in a contemptuous relationship, it is almost impossible to remind yourself of those early halcyon days of romance and love. When daily life is ridden with contempt, mockery, feelings of hostility, and disgust, it can seem hopeless. But all is not lost. You can find ways to stop feeling contempt toward your partner and address the situation. And if you stand on the other side of the fence as the victim of such contemptuous behavior, it may be time to stand up for yourself and claim your right to happiness once and for all. 

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