What's Your Conflict Style?

What To Do With Contempt In A Relationship

communication conflict relationships Jul 13, 2022

Most people know that contempt in relationships is the number one predictor of divorce according to the research of John Gottman. Contempt or disdain is definitely a relationship killer, it refers to a mindset of superiority over our partner, and a devaluing of the relationship and them as a person. If contempt is a mindset, how might we shift it into a different type of mindset that might bring about significant relationship change?

 Conflict or even bickering in a relationship is totally normal-part of being in relationship with another human being is to have disagreements. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, if a couple tells me they never fight, I am just as concerned! However there are patterns of fighting or conflict that we get stuck into that are more concerning than others, and contempt in a relationship is probably the most concerning to me given the Gottman statistics.  



Contempt is a tricky combination of anger, superiority and disgust. It’s harmful to a relationship because it tends to express itself in actions that communicate arrogance: We’re not equals. I’m smarter than you. I’m more sensitive than you. I know what’s best. I’m OK … you’re not OK. You are beneath me! If that’s your mindset, you disregard and dismiss your spouse because you don’t value his or her feelings and thoughts. You’re unwilling to empathize with his or her experience. This makes the marriage feel unsafe for your partner / husband or wife and erodes trust, love and self-esteem. 

What Causes Contempt in a Relationship?

I see unresolved conflict as being a primary cause of contempt in a relationship. If the wounds of disagreement or conflict are never healed with proper repair and resolution, it festers and grows into resentment which then turns into contempt.  The resentment ruminates and sparks a fire of negative thoughts towards our partner, that might start of as an eye roll or mocking, but turns into a general lack of respect for your partner, their thoughts and their feelings. 

What are The Signs of Contempt in a Relationship?

As always, identifying patterns in your relationship is the key to change. That's why we created the My People Patterns Conflict Quiz  which should help you identify your conflict style. If you're on the receiving end of contempt you might want to look for the following signs:

  • Name-calling
  • Eye-rolling
  • mimicking
  • Hostility
  • Sarcasm
  • Condescension
  • Acting superior

If you think your partner is trying to make you feel 'less than', it's probably a sign of contempt.


How to Change Contempt in a Relationship

Communication is often the key to changing in a relationship, so both parties must be able to talk about their desire to change. If you both agree with wanting to save the relationship, then change can happen after each of your conflict styles has been identified (take the test!). As the video says, contempt is a mindset that has to be shifted and we can do that with a focus on gratitude and admiration. 




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