5 Ways Contempt Shows Up in Relationships & How to Avoid It

John Gottman has been studying couples for decades. By now, he and his team of researchers have a pretty good sense of what makes a marriage successful—and what doesn’t.

Sometimes a failed relationship is chalked up to becoming different people, having vastly different schedules, or having philosophical differences that were impossible to resolve.

While a relationship can appear to stop working for a number of reasons, there are usually bigger, more troubling conditions underlying the varied symptoms: One of those conditions is showing contempt toward your partner. In his lab, Gottman discovered that contempt predicted relationship difficulties and failure more than any other factor.

When contempt appears, one spouse feels “less than” the other. A hierarchy exists in place of a partnership.

Contempt makes it almost impossible to trust, hear, and live alongside someone you believe doesn’t respect you and regards you as someone in an inferior position in the relationship—especially when that person, your spouse or partner, is someone you should be able to rely on for emotional safety.

Contempt doesn’t rear its destructive head overnight. Gestures of contempt are often the product of weeks, months, even years of simmering discontentment with your partner.

So what does contempt look like?

· Verbal jabs
Verbal jabs are poison-tipped insults or names, like “stupid,” “ugly,” “jerk,” and even worse. A verbal jab is filled with undisguised contempt; it makes the person receiving the jab feel small and destroys their confidence. Insults and name-calling are never acceptable in a relationship.

· Hostile humor
Sometimes contempt is thinly veiled with sarcasm. When a comment is made at someone else’s expense, the person delivering the so-called humor might claim that it’s all in fun and question your ability to “take a joke.” It’s no joke when you are on the receiving end of hostile humor, and it’s also disrespectful if you and your partner don’t listen to one another and change the behavior.  Hostile humor is not funny and hurts the person on the receiving end.

· Mockery
Contempt in relationships can appear in more subtle ways. If your partner has negative feelings toward you and your relationship, he or she might make a mockery of your words and actions. Mockery eventually transforms relationships into a place where feelings of unworthiness, lack of trust, and lack of validation take over and replace the feelings of safety and security that a successful relationship requires.

· Body language
When you or your partner are angry and having conflict, contemptuous impulses may be hard to control. You may not even be aware of what is being communicated with body language. Contempt can be an eye roll, a sneer, looking away from your partner, arms crossed in front of the body, and other subtle and not-so-subtle body language. Contempt communicates that you or your partner have little regard for what the other has to say.

· Tone of voice
How you speak to your partner is a tell-tale sign of respect or contempt. When you speak calmly, your partner most likely feels understood and safe. When anger is expressed with a raised voice or shouting, it may feel more like an attack.

Can you diffuse contempt?

Gottman’s research shows that the antidote to contempt is to describe your own feelings and needs, rather than focusing on your partner. When you are communicating with your partner, and feel the urge to lash out in a contemptuous way, take a short break and look inside to identify your feelings and needs at the moment. Showing contempt toward your partner only creates a wider chasm in your relationship.

If you recognize the behaviors in the list above, it’s important to know that you and your partner have choices when contempt comes riding in to your relationship.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

· Don’t be drawn in.
When you’re feeling hurt and vulnerable, your impulse might be to lash out with reciprocated disgust; but hurting your partner won’t make you feel any better. Your response can have a powerful effect on how the contempt affects you, and it can potentially open a new door in the way your partner chooses to express frustration.

· Make respect the starting line.
If respect is the rule, the alarm bells of contempt are less likely to ring. Talking about how you’ll fight, and the treatment you each expect to receive before you’re angry, can sometimes ensure contempt isn’t a tool you and your partner ever feel like using.

· Pump the breaks.
Contempt is something that can overflow out of you, when maybe you intended to say nothing at all. If you know you’re feeling overwhelmingly negative, take some time alone. Get to the bottom of what’s bothering you. Return to your partner with a calm attitude that’s more productive than destructive.