Communication Problems Series, Part 3: Contempt

You Can Spot Contempt Easily

The eye roll.  It’s probably the biggest indicator that things are not going well in a relationship.  Try it:  look away from the screen, fold your arms, frown, and roll your eyes like you’ve just heard the stupidest thing in the world.  Now what if that “stupidest thing” were your husband?  Yikes!

That’s probably why the eye roll, or, more accurately, the facial expressions and body language that indicate the feeling of contempt, are such strong indicators of things going wrong between two people.  Marriage researcher John Gottman pinpoints contempt as the number one predictor of divorce, and for good reason.  Feeling contemptuous  means you are pretty much fed up and disgusted by the other person.  You don’t respect them.  You think lots of negative things about them, and you aren’t really even trying to hide it much.

I doubt anybody wants to feel this way.  We get into relationships because we’ve found somebody great.  We think so much of them, we might even vow to spend every day of our lives with them and maybe buy adjoining cemetery plots.  How can it be that you can feel such longstanding negative feelings about someone you have loved so much?

The Easy Answer

What people seem to jump to a lot is:  he’s not what I thought.  Spending all this time has showed me he (or she) is just somehow inferior, a bad person, not very bright, not very considerate, or whatever.  That’s an easy answer.  But how would you like someone to think that about you?

The harder answer is this:  we get so terribly trapped in destructive communication patterns and defenses that we lose sight of each other.  When things pile up and can’t seem to be resolved, it can seem so hopeless.  It’s like a mental trick that takes place so slowly over time that you can’t even see it.  This wonderful, exciting person slowly, almost imperceptibly, has turned into someone else.

Or So It Seems

Again, flip it around and look at it this way:  if someone thought that about you, how would it feel?  You’d probably have a strong sense that the very best parts of you are not being seen.  You would know that the way you act sometimes, the things you say, are all because of hurt or fear or ignorance.  You would wish that this person you’ve loved so much could actually SEE you again, and treat you the way they used to.

Contempt is when someone thinks we are the sum of our worst traits, our least flattering habits, our most embarrassing, awful actions.  It’s like the polar opposite of love. Not only does it feel awful to think you’re married to someone inferior, but to the person feeling so disliked, there is zero incentive to improve.

The reason I’m going on about this:  way too often, couples do not recognize that feeling contempt (or seeing it on your partner) is a relationship emergency.  If contempt has crept into your relationship enough that you recognize it, your relationship might be headed for an end.  (If it isn’t, then it’s probably headed for a pretty dreadful continuation.) This can be the beginning of a much better relationship and a happier life if you get help.

Don’t Worry.  All Is Not Lost!

Mr. Gottman is not a wizard, able to look into a crystal ball and detect what will happen.  He’s more like the “Spirit of Christmas Future” from A Christmas Carol, who showed old Scrooge what MIGHT be if he didn’t change his ways.

When you discover that contempt has taken up residence in your relationship, it’s time to get help. Find out how to dig your way out of this hole that the two of you seem to have dug.  When you smell smoke in your house, you drop everything until you find the source.  Then you put it out.  You do this because you don’t want the house to burn down.  Never would you just hope it goes away, or complain about it for a few years.  You certainly wouldn’t decide you are too busy or you need the water for the garden.  You just get to work and save your house.

When you want a great relationship (and who doesn’t?), the first step is steering it away from danger.  The next step is finding out what you need to change in order to grow and heal.


Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, offering online counseling in Springfield, Chicago and throughout Illinois.  She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones. Contact her today to strengthen your relationship.