Contempt can be deep-rooted and destructive. But often it seeps into a relationship unnoticed. Marriage experts have described it as a key contributor to divorce. But do you know what contempt looks like? Would you recognise it if it emerged between you and your partner?
Disrespect, mocking behaviour, cruel humour, coldness, dismissiveness, put-downs, sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling and sneering – all these behaviours equal contempt. They are the opposite of what is needed for a relationship to thrive, says Sue Pratt, counselling psychologist at LifeWorks.
“Relationships need to be based on a culture of warmth and on language that is caring and tender. Contempt crushes those things,” she says.
Contempt is usually accompanied by a couple becoming critical and defensive and this eats away at goodwill. “There comes a point when the person at the end of the contempt has experienced it so often that they turn away and you can’t turn back,” says Pratt.
It can be learned through family relationships – so if parents or a loved one use contempt we mirror that because that’s how we think relationships work. It may also stem from a sense of power and entitlement, or is used to gain control over someone or a situation.
“It can also be a defensive response to cover your own vulnerability and confusion,” says Pratt. “You’re in a contemptuous relationship if you feel lesser than, you’re spoken at and not to, you’re humiliated, and every idea or feeling or need you express is diminished, ridiculed or minimised. What you bring to the relationship is reduced because your partner is saying whatever you say, need or feel is of no consequence.”
How can you prevent contempt from ruining your relationship?
Contempt has such a devastating effect on a relationship that once you recognise it, you really need to stop it in its tracks. Here are seven ways forward.