Addressing Contempt in Your Relationship: Rebuilding Trust and Connection
When reflecting on reasons that a relationship may not be functioning at a healthy level, it is important to consider the role of contempt.
We might think of a moment when we say something we don’t mean, or react to something our partner said in a way that escalates the situation.
We feel the heat rise in our chest, the tightness in our throat, and the shame at what we’ve done. We’ve just exhibited contempt.
What is Contempt?
Contempt is defined as “a state of feeling that someone or something is not worth consideration or respect.” It can take many forms, such as sneering at someone, rolling one’s eyes, talking down to someone, or using insults. But the common thread is a sense of superiority — feeling that one’s partner or relationship is beneath them in some way.
Contempt is Destructive
Contempt is destructive to the relationship as it enhances anger, hatred, annoyance, disdain, resentment, cynicism and negativity. When contempt is allowed to take root, it can erode trust, intimacy, and mutual respect.
Contempt can look and sound like putting your partner down in some way, passing a judgment or verbalizing a negative assessment of your partner’s way of acting or being.
For example, you might find yourself or your partner saying “I always do the cleaning because you don’t do it right” or “You never put the dishes back in the right way.”
According to Gottman and his research on couples, the presence of contempt in a relationship is often highly predictive of divorce and separations in couples.
Its pervasiveness can make it challenging to compromise, express and experience compassion for the other person and maintain a level of respect and care needed to make a relationship thrive.
Two important ways of managing and reducing levels of contempt in a relationship are 1.) Accepting ownership of one’s emotions and needs and 2.) Expressing gratitude and appreciation for one’s partner.
When combined, these elements are meant to minimize the urge to express contempt and increase feelings of compassion, acceptance and understanding.
If we look at the comment above regarding one partner adamantly asserting that they do all of the cleaning because they don’t believe their partner does it well enough, we need to understand the underlying feelings and needs that are being expressed as well as what might be missing in this statement.
Perhaps, this partner might be able to say “I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of cleaning that there is in the home, and I also accept that if I want things a certain way, I may need help finding a better solution.”
Perhaps this might open up a chance for both partners to accept responsibility for dividing household tasks.
This also might be a great opportunity for this partner to acknowledge that while they might take on more of the cleaning responsibilities, perhaps they notice and appreciate how much work the other partner puts into cooking, managing bills and finances, organizing or taking care of the food shopping.
The goal in minimizing contempt really overlaps with maximizing appreciation and taking the time to notice your partner as a whole person, not just defined by their flaws or areas of improvement.
To show appreciation is to genuinely express a ‘thank you’ for something that you notice as considerate, caring, loving, thoughtful, meaningful or praiseworthy.
Consider how you might express your appreciation- some people may feel comfortable with verbal comments, while others may respond well to physical forms of affections, such as hand holding or a hug.
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