Love and Contempt

It's so easy to go from one to the other.

Posted Feb 18, 2018 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Contempt in love relationships occurs at the end of a long chain of resentment, caused by accumulated perceptions of unfairness. Contempt makes partners seem more like opponents than loved ones. They see their problems resulting not from the way they interact or regulate emotions. Rather, the problem is characterological: They’re immoral, selfish, unstable, or stupid—there’s something wrong with them. Contempt sends people to the Internet to diagnose their partners with various personality disorders. The desire to diagnose a partner typically indicates a level of contempt that, unabated, spells doom for a relationship. It’s hard to be compassionate, kind, and loving to someone you hold in contempt, and it’s equally hard to be compassionate, kind, and loving to someone who holds you in contempt. A relationship in contempt is like a patient on life support. Without heroic intervention, it will die.

How to Know That You Have Contempt for Your Partner

Contempt is present when you use (or at least think) contemptuous attributions such as lazy, selfish, inconsiderate, crazy, narcissistic, borderline, and so on.

Typically, such negative labels reinforce the kind of behavior you don’t want—and almost guarantee that you’ll get more of it. After all, what do lazy, selfish, inconsiderate, and crazy people do? Contempt is the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophesy. That’s because contemptuous attributions eliminate all chance of improvement. The negatively labeled partner (or child) inevitably gives up. It’s unclear, for example, how many helpful and considerate things you have to do not to be considered lazy, selfish, and inconsiderate anymore. Worst of all, the partner or child burdened with negative labels comes to identify with them. As one teenage client put it:

“All my life they’ve been telling me I’m a bad kid. Why don’t they just back off and let me do my job?”  

If you’re getting more and more of the behavior you don’t want, it’s a pretty safe bet that you have contempt for your partner. Please understand, I’m not saying that your contempt caused things to get bad. But you must also understand that contempt keeps them from getting better, due to a phenomenon known as projective identification.

It Can Only Get Worse

Projection is what we do when we attribute our own emotional states, attitudes, or expectations to others. When partners feel irritable, for instance, they often accuse their partners of being irritable, too. If one partner feels guilty about his attraction to an actress on TV, he might say that his partner ogles the leading man. Partners who expect to be disappointed or mistreated project that interpretation onto just about everything their partners feel and do.

Projective identification occurs when we identify with the projection—you get irritable when your partner accuses you of being irritable and you notice how hot the movie star is, once your partner mentions it. Similarly, children can easily identify with adult projections about them being “bad, naughty, selfish, lazy, and so on.”

Projective identification happens so often in daily living that we hardly notice it. If a friend believes that you gossip about her, you have an urge to let another friend know that she feels that way. If someone believes you don’t like him, you start to notice things about him that you really don’t like. If you have coworkers or acquaintances who think you have a good sense of humor, you try to be funny around them. Those who think you’re compassionate inspire you to go out of your way to inquire about the well-being of their children. If some people think you’re intelligent, you try not to say anything dumb around them. If someone thinks you’re critical, you’ll feel an urge to criticize. And if some people think you’re selfish, you’re not likely to express concern about their health and happiness.

Of course we don’t have to conform to people’s projections, but it requires conscious attention not to; on autopilot, projective identification usually prevails. The probable reason that projective identification is so strong is that it enables us to predict behavior in social contexts, which is necessary for a sense of safety and order. Unpredictable behavior stirs anxiety, as when someone speaks loudly in a restaurant, undresses in public, or says impolite things at a dinner party.

Contempt as a Defense

Once contempt becomes part of a person’s defense system, change in the partner’s behavior will not alter it. The partner’s behavior may have started it, but once it has started, contempt takes on a life of its own. I have never seen a case in which behavior change by one partner alone altered the other partner’s contempt. Even if the offending partner does everything the aggrieved partner wants, there will be resentment that it didn’t happen sooner:

“All those years I wasted with you being a selfish jerk, and now you decide to be nice!”

As long as contempt persists, any positive behavior change by one partner will seem like too little, too late.

Contempt Makes You Contemptuous 

The first thing you need to know about contempt is that it affects you more negatively than anyone else. It’s impossible to like yourself as much as you deserve while you feel contempt. Although aimed at your partner, it’s filled with hidden self-anger and self-contempt for “putting up with it.” You’ll likely beat yourself up for trusting or believing your partner in the first place.

In addition to its psychological detriments, contempt lowers the efficiency of your immune system and often causes minor physical ailments, exhaustion, coughs, colds, aches, and pains. You’ll never feel quite okay as long as you hold contempt.

Emotion Contagion

Contempt is extremely contagious and highly influenced by projection. If you’re around a contemptuous person, you’re likely to become more contemptuous.

Now here’s the good news: Compassion is also contagious, albeit to a lesser extent. If you’re around a compassionate person, you’re likely to become more compassionate, and if you project onto people that they’re compassionate, they’re likely to become more thoughtful of others. But even if they don’t, you will remain true to your own deeper values and rid yourself of the contempt that ruins your health and well-being.