How Contempt Destroys Relationships

An eye roll, snarled lip, or sarcastic tone may invite relationship ills.

Posted Mar 04, 2013

(c) gemphotography/fotosearch
Source: (c) gemphotography/fotosearch

Contempt may be hard to define, but l bet you know it when you feel it. Beware. Contempt is a prime sign of relationship or marriage problems ahead. Renowned marriage researcher John Gottman lists it as one of his top indicators that a relationship will fail.

There are some common signs that contempt is underlying the negative tone in a conversation. Eye-rolling suggests contempt. An upper lip raised on one side suggests contempt, as does a sarcastic tone of voice. 

If you have these habits, or if you have been on the receiving end of these negative communications, beware. They are sure signs that someone is not listening or listening only to deprecate you (or that you are doing the same to your partner).

Empathy and contempt are polar opposites. Empathy involves caring about others feelings and concerns. Contempt is arrogant disregard, dismissal, and denigration of others' concerns ("I know best"). Empathy nurtures relationship bonds; contempt invites relationship and marriage problems.

How do parents teach their children empathy or contempt? 

What parents do toward each other and toward their children teaches kids to do the same. Some kids—and adults—are clever, however. Even if their parents display empathy, they discover contempt on their own (or learn it from peers).

What is the nature of contempt that makes it such a potent predictor of marriage failure?

Why does regular eye-rolling cause relationships to turn out poorly? What is it about a snippy tone of voice that conveys that you are dismissing and disregarding what someone has said?

Wikipedia gives helpful basic information on the nature of contempt. It writes:

"Contempt is a... mix of the primary emotions disgust and anger. [1] The word originated in 1393, from the Latin word contemptus, meaning 'scorn.'

Robert C. Solomon places contempt on the same continuum as resentment and anger, and he argues that the differences between the three is that resentment is directed toward a higher status individual; anger is directed toward an equal status individual; and contempt is directed toward a lower status individual." [3]

Why does contempt present a perfect storm of relationship spoilers?

Here are multiple ways that contempt insidiously or explicitly poisons relationships—and especially long-term relationships like marriage and parenting.

1. Insufficient loving. 

The more expression of contempt, the less caring for and about each other.

Empathy has the opposite effects. The more empathetic acts that are committed and attitudes that are displayed, the more caring and love will be present in the relationship. The more empathy that exists between spouses and toward children, the more that everyone in a household feels both loving and loved. 

2. Powering over.

Talking with a contemptuous tone of voice or dismissing information from the other says, "I matter. You don't." That's a power play. If I know better than you do, I’m setting myself above you.

3. Toxicity dumping.

Contempt dumps toxicity into a relationship. As Eric Berne once wrote, relationships that convey “I’m okay; you’re okay” feel safe. On the other hand, “I’m okay; you’re not okay” feels unsafe. 

We all want to feel positive about ourselves. Negative messages of "you’re not okay" are, in this sense, toxic, poisoning our self-concept like mercury poisons a pool of water. 

Tone alone can convey the contemptuous "you're not okay" message. Even if the words are fine, when the tone sounds contemptuous, the tone will prevail. 

4. Contempt signifies rejection.

Rejection may be of what the other person is saying. It may be also of the other person as a whole.

A baby who tastes rotten food immediately wrinkles his nose, curls his lips in an expression of disgust, and spits it out. When someone speaks to you with a tone of contempt, you are likely to feel spit out from that person’s world. “Get out of my life” is the subconscious message embedded in a contemptuous tone of voice or attitude.

If you are the person who felt the contempt or disgust, you are likely to choose to leave the relationship, to spit it out from your life-space. If you feel you have been treated in this manner, you also are likely to exit the relationship. That’s because most people react to being treated contemptuously with the thought, “If you don’t want me, then I don’t want you!”

5. Contempt signifies breaks in the flow.

A relationship connection is expressed and reinforced via information-sharing—that is, by talking and listening. As soon as you say something to me and I respond in a way that indicates that I have heard and accepted your information, we both will feel connected. In a good conversation, two people take turns offering and accepting information, braiding their connection all the while.

If, by contrast, you dismiss what I say, brushing my input aside as if it were unimportant or incorrect, the break in the flow of information between us severs the connection. Contemptuous spitting out or dismissing of what the other person has said causes a break in the flow of information, much like a broken pipe causes a break in the flow of a liquid.

6. Contempt invites feelings of hopelessness.

Psychologist Martin Seligman clarified that when people feel depressed or hopeless, they regard a negative attribute as permanent and pervasive—i.e., as something that will always be there and cannot be changed. Contempt conveys the sense that you have a quality that is hopelessly un-fixable.

What is the alternative to contempt?

Listening to understand, appreciate, and agree is the opposite of listening with contempt.

Another alternative to contempt in relationships is positivity. Positive people enhance their relationships via positive communications—such as, for instance, appreciation, gratitude, affection, agreement, interest, and smiles.

Want to enjoy positive work relationships, healthy relationships with your children, and a long-loving marriage? Dump the contempt. Listen well. And pump up the positivity!

(c) Susan Heitler, Ph.D.