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What is contempt?

Contempt is easily defined as an emotional mix of anger and disgust.  Contempt is the feeling that something or someone is undeserving of consideration or deserving of scorn.

If you’ve ever said, “Oh, I would never do that!” when referring to the actions of other people, you have expressed contempt toward their actions.  If you’ve ever said, “Oh, I would never be like that!”, then you’ve expressed contempt toward a person.

Contempt is damaging to all relationships and marriage is no exception.  When the partners in a marriage journey down the road to contempt, they put their marriage at risk.

What does contempt in marriage look like?

Maybe you aren’t sure if contempt is alive in your marriage.  If you’ve experienced any of these scenarios, then you or your partner may feel contempt toward each other.

  • If you’ve ever expressed disgust toward your partner and feel that they are on a lower moral level than you are, you have experienced contempt toward your spouse.
  • If your spouse has ever expressed disgust toward you or something that you’ve done, they likely feel contempt toward you concerning that issue.
  • If you’ve ever felt superior to your spouse and those feelings led you to question your relationship, you may be experiencing contempt.
  • If your spouse has ever declared his or her superiority over you, he or she likely feels contempt toward you, at least in the areas where he or she feels superior.
  • If you or your spouse exchange in sarcasm toward one another, there may be contempt present in your marriage.
  • If you or your partner ever mock each other during arguments, you have a red flag for contempt.
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What does contempt do to a marriage?

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of your partner’s contempt, then you know how it makes you feel.  When someone you love and are emotionally intimate with treats you with disgust or flings sarcasm your way, it hurts.  Even if your spouse apologizes later, the fact that he or she has considered such hurtful things about you still plays in your mind.

When your partner scrutinizes your life and exposes your flaws, you begin to trust him or her — and his or her love for you — a little less.  Eventually, your marriage becomes a place where you don’t feel safe to be yourself for fear of your partner looking down on you.  This lack of trust and security dooms a marriage.

How can you stop contempt from ruining your marriage?

The best way to keep contempt from ruining your marriage is to never let it get started.  This means that couples must find a way to express their frustrations and voice their complaints without sliding into resentment or disgust.

Here are four ways to keep contempt out of your marriage:

1.  Make your complaints all about you.  This means using your “I” statements.  When your partner does something you don’t like, tell him or her how it makes you feel.  Use, “I feel frustrated when . . . “, and “My feelings are hurt when . . .” instead of “You frustrate me when . . .” and “You always hurt my feelings.”

Your feelings are your problem — not your partner’s!  But, as your committed spouse, your partner should care enough to discuss with you how you feel and what steps you can each take so that you don’t feel that way anymore.

2.  Assign positive intent.  I’ve mentioned this important step in other posts about marriage.  When your partner does something that annoys or hurts you, don’t automatically assume that he or she was intentionally trying to annoy or hurt you.

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Talk to your spouse about it and explain how you feel, but don’t blame them for being purposefully hurtful.  The truth is that they may not have been thinking of you at all!  Help your spouse to become more aware of how his or her actions affect others by saying how those actions affected you.

3.  Complaints and criticism are not the same thing.  When you complain to your partner about something he or she is doing that bothers you, you are not attacking him or her as a person.  (Especially if you use your “I” statements and assign positive intent.)  Complaining helps you to express yourself and to be heard.  Criticism, on the other hand, is damaging and can be the beginning of feelings of contempt.

4.  Pay attention to your own faults and practice compassion.  If you feel like criticizing your partner, try to remember the last time you were perfect.  If your partner is messing up in ways that you don’t struggle with, think about how you would feel if he or she began blasting you for the things with which you do struggle.

Instead of looking down on your partner or feeling disgust toward him or her, ask how you can help.  Your spouse probably already knows the things that he or she has difficulty with and would probably be relieved if you showed compassion instead of condemning.  Be your partner’s biggest fan and the first one in line to help him or her when he or she needs it!

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If you want to know more about contempt in marriage and other factors that destroy marriage and predict divorce, read The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman.  This was required reading for me in my grad school Marriage and Family Therapy program and remains one of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject of marriage.

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