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Contempt Can Be Poisonous to Your Relationship

Madissyn Fredericks, Licensed Professional Counselor, Symmetry Counseling

According to marriage researcher and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman, contempt is found to be the most damaging element in a relationship and the number-one predictor of divorce. This finding can be jarring to read as many people have a difficult time understanding what contempt is and may be unaware that it is present in their relationship. Contempt is described by Dr. Gottman as treating others with disrespect and communicating in a “truly mean” manner with your significant other. Some examples of contempt include name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, or mimicking. When contempt is present, one partner is sending unspoken messages of disgust to the other indicating that they don’t care about them, they are inferior, and that they are worthless. These messages are poisonous to relationships because it conveys disgust and lack of empathy which leaves the other partner feeling more upset and misunderstood than they did originally. If you have noticed yourself or your partner exhibiting this type of behavior, it does not mean your relationship is doomed; however, it may take a lot of work. Below are a few “antidotes” commonly used to diminish contempt in relationships.

1. Actively Listen

When you are constantly disregarding your partner’s feelings and projecting disgust towards them, you are inviting negativity into your relationship when you could be nurturing it with empathy. There are many ways to display empathy to your partner, but active listening is key. When your partner is trying to talk to you or they need support; try listening for the sake of understanding rather than belittling. Begin by using body language and facial expressions that are open and warm such as uncrossed arms and a concerned face rather than an eye-roll. You can also try relaying the information they say back to them it to make sure you are both on the same page. Active listening will promote empathy and understanding in your relationship rather than promote contempt.

2. Promote Positivity and Appreciation

Another way contempt poisons a relationship is by breeding negativity and heartache. When one partner uses contempt toward the other, the other partner may use it right back to “get even” or may even shut down emotionally. Rather than continuing this negative cycle of hurt and disgust, try promoting positivity instead. Refrain from sending messages that convey that your partner is inferior and begin to appreciate them. Point out the things your partner does that you like or appreciate. You may like it when they do the dishes for you, take the dog out when it is your turn, or send you loving text messages throughout the day. Bring these positive aspects of your relationship to light and show your partner some appreciation whether it is in a text or through a hug or kiss.

3. Recover Fondness and Admiration

One of Dr. Gottman’s many tools to fight contempt includes building a strong foundation of fondness and admiration in your relationship. Building this foundation involves discussing the happy events in your past such as how you met, first impressions, what you remember about your first date, how you decided to get married, some things you like to do together, etc. Exploring the history of your relationship helps both partners identify what they love about each other and remember why they are together today. Recovering the fondness and admiration in your relationship aids in putting that positivity and warmth back into your relationship.

If you have identified contempt in your relationship and would like some support, it may be useful to connect with a therapist. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!

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