Contempt: The Relationship Killer
Updated: Jun 12
“When anger is fused with disgust, it creates a particularly deadly compound: contempt.” -Warren TenHouten.
I have recently been subjected to what I would consider contemptuous behaviour. Had I been in an emotionally vulnerable place, the actions of the person concerned would have made me feel beneath her, unworthy of her attention and time, that I am not as ‘good’ as her. It’s just as well then that I have the skin of a rhino and some owl years behind me so realise that others’ behaviour has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them. As I walked away from the situation, the thought ‘Wow, that lady has some pent up anger that she can not sufficiently express. That’s a shame for her” popped into my head. The thought “Why was she being such a dick?” definitely didn’t factor.
That is a shame for her because the only person she hurts by acting in this way in the long term is herself.
This experience made me think about the behaviours that could make one feel unworthy. Behaviour that could make one feel ‘little’. Behaviour that we may all indulge in at some point of our relationships in our life and whether I exhibit these behaviours at all. I don’t wish to ever come across as contemptuous so I thought hard about the types of behaviour that could be construed as contempt and I came up with the following:
redoing what someone else has done,
dismissing someone else’s thoughts and opinions (as you think yours are better),
rolling yours eyes,
stonewalling (refusing to communicate or cooperate),
The behaviour type is disrespectful and is sure to erode emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing as well as any relationship. Not only is contempt the number one predictor of divorce but research has shown that it affects the immune system. The Gottman Institute says:
“Our research found that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than couples who are not contemptuous. Contempt is the most poisonous of all relationship killers. We cannot emphasize that enough. Contempt destroys psychological, emotional, and physical health.”
Although this research pertained to romantic relationships, contempt can show in and destroy any relationship; with friends, family, work colleagues, clients, sports partners etc. And, if it does, people will continue to leave your life and you may end up with no loving connections.
So what can we do about it ?
Contempt is born from focusing on the attributes that we dislike in others. Qualities that don’t “fit” with us. So the key to discouraging contempt is to examine our thoughts, change our communication style and encourage empathy. If a contemptuous thought comes to mind, try and replace it with a positive one. Think about the qualities that you enjoy in that person. Think about how we may feel if we were on the receiving end of such behaviour. Think about how we can communicate better with others. Allow our communication to come from a place of love and empathy. Empathy is the opposite to contempt so contempt can not exist if we are empathetic in our relationships.
Using universal statements can be helpful so instead of using phrases such as “you always”, “you never” or “you make me” (which can create a defensive response within the other person), focus on how you feel and use an “I” statement. Use direct communication. For example: if you like to be on time to social engagements but you feel you always have to wait for around for your partner and this makes you late; instead of saying something like:
“Can’t you hurry up, you always make us late, you’re like snail with mud in it’s eyes, doesn’t know where it’s going and takes forever to do anything”
you could try
“I really like to be on time, it makes me anxious when we’re late. Is there a way we could be ready any earlier?”
Another part of communication is listening especially during conflict. So instead of interrupting the person when they’re sharing their views, listen intently with no interruptions, think about how they are feeling and try to understand things from their perspective. Try your best not to criticise, judge or belittle as these responses will make the person feel unimportant. Instead, validate the person’s feelings by acknowledging them.
If you are on the receiving end of contemptuous behaviour, communication is still the key. Ask if the person is upset, ask if something you have done has angered or upset them, encourage them to speak directly with you. Discourage suppressing negative feelings and emotion.
Cultivating an environment of appreciation and respect is a sure way to be happy in your relationships.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work - John M Gottman Ph.D
Psychology Today: How Contempt Destroys Relationships - Susan Heitler Ph.D