Contempt in Relationships: What It Is and How to Overcome It

Relationship experts share their advice for dealing with this tricky emotion.
Megan Lierley
by Megan Lierley
Updated Oct 21, 2021

While arguments and disagreements are a natural part of any long-term romantic relationship, there are ways to "fight fair"—and there are styles of conflict that may erode a relationship over time. One of the more harmful conflict styles is contempt.

To understand what contempt in relationships is, as well as the harmful role it can play and how to best respond if it's happening to you, we turned to Kristen Mark, a sex and relationship researcher; couples therapist Tracy Ross; and therapist John Rogers.

In this article:

What Is Contempt in a Relationship?

While expressions of contempt may look or feel different in different relationships, there are a few clear traits of a contemptuous relationship that experts agree on.

"Contempt is when you disregard your partner's feelings and treat them as someone who is not worthy of consideration," Mark says. "Mocking your partner, speaking to them with condescension, or using sarcasm for cruelty are all examples of contempt."

Over time, contempt can have a negative effect on someone's self-esteem, and feelings of contempt that are left unaddressed can be a big relationship killer.

What Causes Contempt in a Relationship?

"Contempt comes from issues that build up and aren't addressed," Ross says. "It becomes a habit. You start giving yourself permission to act a certain way with your partner."

Mark says contempt is often fueled by negative thoughts about your partner that show up through lack of respect and disregard for your partner's thoughts, feelings and even existence. "At its worst, it can take the form of disgust and hostility," she says. "It makes you want to attack a partner's sense of self and fuels conflict in a relationship."

Signs of Contempt in a Relationship

If you're worried you may be experiencing contempt in your relationship, experts say there are certain signs to look out for. Remember that identifying the issue is the first step toward a solution, so it's a brave and worthwhile task to even check whether you may be experiencing contempt in your relationship.

Ross says there's a lot of body language involved in contempt, like eye-rolling, sneering, stonewalling or turning away. "Contempt is when you feel like you're superior and have a moral high ground, and you just know better than your partner," she says.

Rogers says the signs are typically specific to someone's personality. "But for my clients, generally it's viewed as all-or-nothing thinking," he says. Examples he shares are verbalizing contempt as "me versus you" in conversations, as well as a power struggle in which one person has to be correct and the other has to be wrong.

It's important to recognize signs of contempt early on in your relationship so they don't fester, as Mark says studies by psychologist John Gottman found that contempt was the No. 1 predictor of divorce.

How to Address Contempt in a Relationship

As with any relationship hurdle, honesty and open communication are key. "Talk to your partner and find ways to build up a culture of appreciation in your relationship," Mark says. "Also, describe your own feelings and needs to your partner and get into the habit of doing this regularly. That allows for you to take ownership of your own experience and share that with your partner so they can be responsive to those feelings and needs."

Ross adds that even before you talk to your partner, it's important to get clear on your own thoughts, feelings and frustrations. She suggests asking yourself questions like, "Am I really trying to make [my partner] feel less than me? Where is that going to get me? Is this the kind of relationship I want to have?"

Once you and your partner have worked to identify where the contempt is coming from, you can rebuild your relationship from a more positive, safe space. "You have to devote time to building the positive, not just eliminating the negative," Ross says.

It's possible to move past the negative emotions, hurt and defensiveness that can stem from contempt in a relationship. Marriage counseling can be hugely beneficial in figuring out what your relationship needs to get back to a place that feels healthy, happy and safe for both partners.

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