the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.“he showed his contempt for his job by doing it very badly”
What it looks like in relationships
Contempt in the context of a relationship differs slightly from the definition above. It feels more like a person is arguing from a perspective of moral superiority or disgust. You could even say that it looks like Criticism plus disgust. At its root, contempt is the communication of utter disrespect; a rejection of another person’s worth. To fully understand how toxic contempt is, consider that it is actually worse than hatred. It is about that utter disrespect. An active, visceral blatant disrespect of a person’s very humanity. It’s the nuclear bomb that destroys so much around it and lingers. But there is an alternative that we’ll discuss in a minute.
When somebody is arguing from a contemptuous place, they will frequently degrade the other person, call them names, and their facial expressions will show utter disgust: the upper lip curled, nostrils flared and the head pulled back and turned away as if they smell something horrible. Picture the quintessential teenager looking disgusted and saying, “Whatever” as they walk away.
What to do about it: Communicate & Appreciate
In Gottman Couples Therapy we talk about the “antidotes” for each of the Four Horsemen. With contempt, the antidote is two-fold:
Communicate your needs and feelings
Mindfulness of your own potential for contempt is essential. When you bring self-awareness to the table you are better able to head it off at the pass. Remember that discomfort is trying to find comfort. When a person feels contempt, they often report feeling like the other person does not understand their needs and feelings. So instead of lashing out to win the war, try using those old-school I-statements where you express your feelings (“I feel ______ when it seems like I’m not being heard”), and to express your needs in the grammatical affirmative (“What I need is ________” instead of “I need you to stop ______).
Cultivate Fondness and Appreciation
Of course, cultivating the opposite of contempt makes a whole lot of sense here. As you move through your daily life with each other, strive to regularly look for reasons to show that you love each other, that you enjoy spending time with one another, that you are looking forward to seeing each other later. Share at least one passionate kiss each day! Not just a quick peck, but a real kiss that gets that fire going a bit. Do those little things like dragging your hand across your partner’s back as you walk behind them. Tell them how impressed you are with their accomplishments, their focus, their desire to learn, etc. This is something that is done before the conflicts arise so that contempt is less likely to be able to take root.
To learn more about red-flags to look out for and how to fix them, please visit my Couples Counseling page. Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.