Experts have described it as a major factor in separation and divorce. So how can you stop contempt creeping in and ruining your relationship?
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 know how to recognise it if it emerged between you and your husband?
Disrespect, mocking behaviour, cruel humour, coldness, dismissiveness, put-downs, sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling and sneering – all these behaviours signify contempt. Where there is contempt, it means you see yourself as being better than your partner, says consultant psychologist Dr Adrian Wang from Gleneagles Medical Centre. “You start thinking you deserve better, and this leads to resentment and frustration, which sets up a vicious cycle of more contempt and disrespect," he says.
"Communication breaks down, and you start becoming defensive and judgmental.” 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 psychologist Sue Pratt.
Contempt 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.
“When there's contempt in a marriage, what you bring to the relationship is reduced because your partner is saying whatever you say; need or feel is of no consequence,” says Sue.
How to Stop it!
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 some ways forward:
Learn To Forgive
Forgiveness is the first step forward, says Dr Wang. “Try and think of some positive aspects of your partner first, before letting your anger cloud your judgement.”
The person displaying contempt must also take responsibility for their behaviours. “If you’ve been mean-spirited, tell your husband you didn’t realise how harmful your behaviour has been and that you are genuinely sorry,” says Sue. “And then explain what you have really been trying to express.” Many people on the receiving end of contempt don’t actually want to leave their relationship – they just want the contempt to stop, she adds.
Pick Your Moment
When one person is detached and the other is on the receiving end of their contempt, both people are angry and hurt and flooded with stress. “It’s not a good time to try and stop it or stand up to it when the other person is still contemptuous; things will only escalate,” says Sue. Notice the physical reactions and tension in your partner’s body. It can take 20 minutes for our body to soothe itself, and get back to a calm and restful state. Once peace has been restored, you can try and do some repair work.
Think About The Feelings Behind It
Tune in to the feelings under the contempt – yours or your husband’s. “Often underneath the contempt is fear – I will never be loved, I won’t be heard, I won’t be in control,” says Sue. “Is your spouse afraid right now? Imagine what they are feeling. Can you say, ‘I see why you feel like that. I can see you are angry right now. I understand it’? Stepping into the other person’s experience is a great antidote to contempt. Tune in to the underbelly feelings, and you may see a shift from contempt to connection and a feeling of being understood.”
Take The Edge Off Your Emotion
Psychological de-arousal techniques can take the edge off the heightened feelings that can lead to contemptuous behaviour. Try deep breathing and progressive muscles relaxation where you tense muscles and then relax them. Start with each hand and arm and gradually move through the body from your head and shoulders down to your chest, hips, buttocks, legs and feet. Tense and clench and then relax.
Build Fondness And Admiration
The antidote to contempt is building a culture of fondness and admiration. Talking about happier times in the past can help couples reconnect with fondness. “Do things together to create positive memories,” advises Dr Wang. When contempt creeps in, make time to remember how and why you became a couple. Think about your first impressions of each other, remember your first date, how you decided you wanted to be together and what moments stand out as the happiest in your journey together as a couple.
Accept Each Other’s Differences
It’s okay for your spouse to think and feel differently – accept that nobody is right or wrong. “Then, when a difference arises and is followed through in our behaviour, we can give that assertive ‘I’ message as a complaint rather than a criticism,” explains counsellor Frederika Davies. “Let’s say you’ve asked your spouse to pick up their clothes from the floor but they continue to throw them on the floor. Sarcastically I might say, ‘Who is the maid here? You’re such a lazy slob.’ Or I could instead say, ‘When you continue to drop your clothes on the floor and I’ve asked you not to do it, I feel taken for granted and hurt that you don’t listen and take me seriously.’”
Work At It
Both you and your husband need to be willing to work at the contempt in your relationship. Discover ways to speak respectfully about their needs and to be prepared to listen to each other. “Communicate clearly, and learn how to talk without getting upset or exchanging hostile comments,” says Dr Wang. “Recognise that a healthy relationship is one where both parties see each other as equals. Both should give each other equal respect, and understand that they each contribute equally in the relationship, even if the contributions might be different.”