Overcoming Contempt in Marriage

According to the Oxford Dictionary Contempt is, ‘The feeling that a person or a thing is worthless or beneath consideration’ or to have ‘disregard for something that should be considered’. When we act with contempt, we basically treat others as though they are inferior to us. Contempt can involve sarcasm, cynicism, mocking, mimicking or negative body language such as rolling your eyes. An example of contempt could be:

“Barry comes home from work, grabs a beer out of the fridge and makes himself comfortable in front of the tv. Marg comes home and asks him if he can set the table whilst she prepares dinner. Barry retorts, “Geez Marg, you always ask me to do things for you when I’m watching tv… but don’t worry, I’ll be your little slave boy”.

After four decades of research, leading marriage therapist and researcher, John Gottman maintains that the #1 predictor of divorce is ‘contempt.’ It is an attitude that can become an ‘atmosphere’ in a relationship, that is uniquely toxic.

Contempt can creep up on a relationship over time, as negative experiences provoke negative emotions. As issues and conflict aren’t resolved thoroughly or effectively, resentment sets in, and over time begins to surface as a formidable habit of attack on a person’s character and person.

Contempt can also develop in a subtle way if we allow ‘over- familiarity’ to occur. As the old sayings go, ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ and ‘Don’t spend too much time in your neighbors’ house, or they may resent you’.

So how do we resist this thing? How do we prevent ‘contempt’ from taking root in our relationships?

One word: ‘Appreciation’

Like many aspects of relationships, we can improve things by being intentional. With respect to overcoming ‘contempt’, the antidote (as John Gottman states), is about developing a culture of appreciation. We can be intentional about this- and if we are, the results will speak for themselves.

Some steps to overcoming contempt

  • Honestly and thoroughly work through and let go of any resentment. It may help to do this with a counsellor. This can take time.
  • Remember why you married your partner. What was it that drew you to them? What were/ are their unique qualities that you found attractive?
  • Begin to intentionally express appreciation to your partner, even for little things. Tell them what you like about them. Look for things to express appreciation for (even if you have to look really hard!)