Relationship Destroying Behaviors: Contempt

4 Tips for Managing Contempt

There are four behaviors so deadly to a relationship, be it a romantic, familial, or business, that they have been called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ by relationship expert, John Gottman, Ph.D.

This article is the second in a series of four articles devoted to understanding the impact of each of these behaviors along with tips for reducing the impact of the behaviors, which are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling

This time we look at Contempt

Humans are powerful. The union of two humans is not merely the joining of two minds, or even two hearts. It is, in reality, a joining of two worlds. And when worlds collide, or even endeavor to peacefully mesh, conflict is inevitable

In the last article, we noted how criticism slowly eats away at the fabric of a relationship — like an acid. Contempt goes one step further. It is the most poisonous of all the behaviors because it doesn't attack merely something the person does (which is criticism) but instead it attacks who s/he is. Contempt has been shown to cause actual harm to the body and soul.

Long-simmering negative thoughts about another person fuel contempt. It rises out of not feeling heard. This can occur when one or both people take a passive position in the relationship, stockpiling hurts, rather than staying current with problems as they arise. There are other causes, too.

Contemptuous behaviors include:

  • Belittling
  • Cynicism
  • Belligerence
  • Name-calling
  • Hostile humor
  • Sarcasm

Just reading the list makes you cringe doesn't it?

Here are 4 Tips for Managing Contempt

  1. Name it. When you notice that contempt is present, name it, and request that it stop. “You are belittling me. Will you stop belittling me?”
  2. Identify what it is that you really want. “I feel ______ What I want instead is _________” (“I am feeling really angry towards you right now, and what I want instead is to be able to understand you and know you are for me.”) Notice that this is about what YOU want; not what you want the other to do for you. Contempt is a grownup version of temper tantrum and this is one way to address it.
  3. Contempt toward another reveals a lack of respect. If you don’t respect your partner, look at your inability to see their good traits. We can always find evidence to support what we are looking for. If contempt comes home to roost, it’s time to change your focus. Look for the other’s creativity, resourcefulness and strengths. Remember that it is not that they have less value, it is that you are limited in your ability to see how worthy of life he or she is. Constructive conflict is only possible from a place of respect.
  4. Take charge of you. If you are participating in contemptuous behaviors — stop. Immediately put those animals back in their cages. Find other places to vent your tantrum energies. Exercise is a really good outlet.

Change always begins with us as individuals. If you desire a relationship free of contempt, be the one who doesn't play. Sometimes these behaviors become habits. Changing any habit starts with noticing. If you’re serious about changing a behavior that hurts others it will help you to account for the behavior. “I did it again. I’m so sorry.” When we have to say we’re sorry we’re more cautious about doing it again. It’s kind of humiliating, isn't it?

There are two other articles coming up with the other 2 horsemen. As you read, pay attention to the ones you to which you are most vulnerable. Notice.


I have triple certifications as a life, relationship and grief recovery coach, with extensive training as a relationship systems coach, mediator and collaborative divorce facilitator. I know the heartache of leaving a life you love, and leaving a family without its container. I am divorced, just like you. My divorce came after 30 years of marriage. I was “in it” (the pain, turmoil, confusion, blame, guilt, etc) for a number of years, since it took us nearly 5 years to get divorced. (It was a big decision that I didn't take lightly.) One of the remarkable surprises, and one that I totally did not expect, was who I became through the process. Pain changes us. It makes us kinder and gentler and more aware. I became all those things. I love the person I have become, and you can love the new you, too. I can help with that. I fully believe in your ability to get through and get better. You can lean on my faith in you, and my faith in the process, until you find your own.

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