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How to Avoid Contempt and Keep Your Relationship Safe

Tina Fey eye roll contempt

Tina Fey eye roll

I learned about the direness of contempt years ago when my marriage was ending and I happened to read Malcolm Gladwell’s noted book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In the book, Gladwell speaks with Dr. John Gottman — marriage expert and scientist. Based on years of studying married couples, Dr. Gottman says,  contempt is a definite sign a relationship is on the rocks.

In my mind back then, I took contempt to mean a feeling of, “You are annoying or stupid and not worth my time.”

I remember looking for signs of contempt in my marriage. I found them. I felt guilty when I noticed myself delivering contemptuous messages. I thought I hid my disdainful feelings but they came out verbally and within my body language.

It’s not just criticism

Only recently, did I take the time to learn the full definition of Dr. Gottman’s contempt. Research for another article had me return to Blink. This time when I re-read the pages on contempt, I found the following from Gottman:

“…contempt is any statement made from a higher level. A lot of the time it’s an insult: ‘You’re a bitch. You’re scum.’ It’s trying to put that person on a lower plane than you. It’s hierarchical.”

Long-time therapist and co-founder of The Couples Institute, Dr. Peter Pearson, recently said on The Smart Couple Podcast, that there is no hierarchy in marriage. He said a couple is a team. If one of you is down the whole operation grinds to a halt.

After considering the new definition of contempt, I realized I often felt on the lower end of comments made by my former husband, even when they weren’t critical. That feeling probably registered in my nervous system as low-grade contempt.

You disgust me

In fact, Dr. Gottman states that the presence of contempt can predict how many colds a husband or wife has in a year. Its presence affects the functioning of our immune systems. Feeling contempt directed toward us is akin to feeling disgust aimed at us in that it makes us feel like we are being rejected or excluded from our most important community. Rejection and isolation are two of the most insidious well-being killers.

What contempt looks like

Psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel, says eye-rolls, not looking at our partners when we speak to them and snark, all amount to contempt too.

How often do we keep our eyes on our phones or the TV while talking with our partner? This is the same as saying you are not worth my time. Hierarchy. Contempt.

Snarky comments and humor are everywhere in our society. It’s cool to have the most snarky and clever comeback. But snark is only thinly disguised criticism. We use it is an attempt to feed our ego and fit in, but feeling, seeing and hearing it day in and day out, makes us feel removed from connection.

To stay contentedly connected we need presence and responsiveness. Our loved ones have to feel safe to drop the snarky comments.

How do we eliminate contempt?

Now we know contempt is something we want to avoid at all costs, but how?

Dr. Gottman speaks of positive sentiment override, which is essentially believing your spouse has the best intentions. When our partner comes home and gripes about traffic, dinner and the yard and we have positive sentiment override, we chalk up their grumpiness to a bad day. The positive sentiment serves as a buffer keeping contempt, criticism and hurt feelings at bay.

If we have negative override, we attribute it to their long-term character. “He always looks at the bad side. All he does is complain. He’s an ass.”

To safeguard our relationships we need to focus on positive sentiment override. Give our spouse or partner the benefit of the doubt, instead of jumping to a permanent label about him or her.

Using compassion to keep us on the same level

As a couple, we need to think of ourselves as a team, each equally valuable. We have each others’ backs and believe at our core, that our partners have the best intentions.

There is another C word that counteracts contempt. That is compassion. It takes curiosity and presence to feel into another person’s experience, especially when we are in conflict. We have to ask ourselves, “How does it feel to be you?” When we get curious about someone else’s experience, we open up and level the playing field. We see there is not a hierarchy, but a fellow human with a heart and desire to belong.

Is contempt present in your relationship? If not, how do you keep it at bay? Is there a hierarchy in your marriage? 


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  1. Michael Buley July 7, 2018 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    Asking anyone, ‘How does all that feel to you?’ … ‘How do you feel about that?’ is powerful. When someone wants to know how we FEEL … it opens us up.

    Not, ‘What do you think about such and such?’ … but how do you FEEL.

    ‘How does that make you feel?’ … so powerful. Questions — NOT yes or no questions — open us up. Open anyone up. And then we can connect with someone. And he or she connects with us.

    To listen to someone is perhaps the greatest gift we can offer. And asking questions is how someone opens up to us — and then, if we are wise, we listen. We don’t interject with OUR thoughts and feelings. We have asked this person how SHE feels. Let her talk. And just listen.

    A healthy relationship is one where each person asks the other how he or she feels. And listens. And waits when there are pauses. There is often more.

    I read years ago that Indians, when listening to someone, would wait a minute after the other person had stopped speaking. Often, the other would share more. I have tried that. It’s interesting. It ‘works.’ We give the other person space and time to find the words. And very often, more does come. and the more someone shares with us, the more we understand and find that compassion. We feel connected. We ARE connected.

    We never connect with someone who doesn’t listen to us, who doesn’t ask questions. We always, perhaps, do connect with those who do ask questions … and then listen. And … don’t run when the other person shares something that is uncomfortable for us. Stay. Listen. Perhaps say nothing at all. Very often, OUR thoughts and feelings and options don’t matter a stitch!

    We want, maybe more than anything, someone we are safe with, someone with whom we can share all of who we are — without judgment; without that person running in fear or discomfort or, worse, disgust.

    Listening is healing. It is what connects us to another, and that person to us. It is, not coincidentally, the opposite of contempt.

    It is, as with all things of value, a practice.

    • Brenda Knowles July 9, 2018 at 11:06 am - Reply

      Listening is the opposite of contempt… I think you’re right. When someone listens to us we feel valued. When they ask us how we feel, we feel valued too. Most of the time, we just need to know we matter. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Michael. It made me realize when I talk and my fiancé listens — even if he doesn’t say a lot in return– the fact that he stays and listens, without reacting judgmentally, makes me feel very safe and cared for. Have an awesome day my friend!

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