The Silent Emotion That Can Ruin A Relationship
Key differences between indifference, contempt and disengagement.
“Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.” — Marcus Aurelius
The above quote by philosopher Marcus Aurelius seems pretty straightforward, right? We need to challenge ourselves to be indifferent towards what doesn’t matter.
If we get cut off on the road we can either get hot under the collar and let them get the best of us…Or, we can choose to ignore that person’s behavior as a reflection on them.
Or, let’s say we’re at the mall and the person behind the counter assists three customers before us, although we were in line before them. We can either speak up and take it personally…Or, we can brush it off, and make a mental note not to stand in their line next time.
These situations seem pretty Black or White.
However, our more personal relationships aren’t always so cut and dry. There’s shades of grey.
How, for example should we respond to a friend standing us up for dinner? What is the “correct” way to tell a family member they’re overstepping boundaries by calling our ex to say hi?
Or, how should we react to our S.O. if they impulsively interrupt us or change the subject when we’re trying to talk or explain our feelings?
Because these type of scenarios involve more personal or intimate relationships, turning to indifference is not always the best option.
In casual or transactional situations, indifference is not only the most appropriate non-emotion to undertake, with practice it can become almost automatic.
But, the closer we are to someone, the assumption is that there should be more of an emotional investment, and therefore less ability to remain indifferent.
Besides, why would we want to remain indifferent towards our S.O. if they won’t let us get a word in edgewise?
But, indifference happens. Sometimes it’s obvious. And, sometimes it happens so subtly that we don’t notice it’s happening until we’re putting on hip boots from being knee-deep in it.
In personal relationships, indifference can rear its head with nonchalant head-nods and a forced grin instead of wasting energy engaging in conversation. You may see this dynamic in families who live together, but live separate lives.
Or, in intimate relationships, indifference may show up as a stock “compliment” where we hear “great job, babe” for anything we do — from nailing a promotion to burning dinner.
Indifference is marked by non-emotion, where we don’t really feel anything — no anger, no boredom, no connection, and no desire to talk or engage.
It’s never outwardly horrible. It’s blasé; a lack of investment and passion are the overarching themes.
Suffice to say, in intimate relationships, it’s also blasé in the bedroom because emotional investment is either forced, or lacking.
Yet, indifference isn’t necessarily the biggest relationship deal-breaker, although it’s on this list for a reason.
According to Dr. John Gottman, contempt is the belief that your partner is beneath you, subservient, incompetent and/or unworthy. And, while some theorists are at a stalemate on whether contempt is a feeling or an emotion, Dr. Paul Ekman’s decades of research on universally recognized emotions — one of which is contempt — has helped narrow the gap.
The biggest threat to the security, happiness and functionality of a relationship — is contempt.
In personal relationships, contempt is based on calloused feelings, thoughts and behavior where one person is not only unhappy in the relationship, they become detached; indifferent. Contempt can happen in any type of personal relationship, but is most commonly associated with intimate relationships.
When feelings of anger, disgust, resentment, and indifference are in play, the emotion of contempt is at work.
It should be little wonder why this emotion is so toxic to a relationship. Contempt happens over time and is triggered by negative feelings and emotions that continue building between two people without a resolution in sight. More common than not, is that those involved aren’t looking for a solution; they’re looking for a way out.
And, because of the emotional toxicity associated with contempt — they don’t care about the other person’s feelings.
Contemptuous behavior can be more covert, such as choosing your tablet over chatting with your partner, in pretending you didn’t get their text, or in taking the long way home from work.
Or, it can be more overt such as attacking your partner’s sense of Self, or their values. For example, when contempt is in action, nothing that person can do is good enough. Every indiscretion, past argument or imperfection are brought up.
Contempt usually leads to a complete breakdown in the relationship where conflict resolution is tossed out the door, for more conflict.
One huge red flag that often flies under the radar either due to a lack of awareness, or the fact that it feels familiar — even comfortable — is that contempt walks hand-in-hand with devaluation.
Actually, the two are synonymous.
To anyone used to unhealthy relationships, contempt can become an expected feeling, and sooner or later it usually shows its face. For example, those who display contempt toward their partner are often reported as flipping a switch — going from status quo, or even idealized relationship values, to painting their partner All Black.
What triggers devaluation or contempt?
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of variability with contempt; what triggers one partner into devaluing another, may not be a trigger for someone else. However, there are some key similarities found in studies.
For example, in a study by Shribner et al. (2016) contempt was identified as exhibiting envy, rage, pride and acting indifferently towards the other person’s needs and feelings. Perhaps not surprising, is that contempt has also been associated with higher incidences of narcissism, antisocial traits and perfectionism.
However, contempt (or devaluation), is also identified with a more sensitive or unstable sense of Self identity, self-deprecating beliefs, insecure attachment styles and low self-esteem. While reading this probably won’t make a partner feel any better if they’ve been devalued, understanding its core traits can help with insight.
Typically, most information considers “disengaging” as a bad thing. Not me.
Behavior analytically speaking, if engaging means to perform a behavior, then disengaging is its opposite.
Negative disengagement is about emotionally numbing, tuning out and being unapproachable. Communication is shut down. Finding a solution is dismissed for maintaining the problem. And, behavior becomes self-serving and based on self-preservation.
When a person withdraws, it’s associated with passive-aggression or in shutting down. And, just because a partner withdraws doesn’t mean the problem does.
There’s a couple things that should be distinguished between indifference and withdrawing. With negative disengagement (withdrawal), you are feeling too much; with indifference you feel nothing. And, at the core of negative disengagement are often feelings of contempt and betrayal; with indifference you don’t care. There’s no connection and no emotional investment.
Negative disengagement can happen in any relationship, but is commonly seen in intimate relationships with an uneven balance of power. Basically, the person who withdraws has all the power in the moment.
Yet, negative disengagement breeds contempt in both partners. For the one who withdraws, it can become a habit where they may rationalize withdrawing as their partner being unworthy of their time, or that they’re trying to “prevent” an argument.
And, for the partner who was on the receiving end of negative disengagement, they’re likely racking up a list of everything they despise about their partner, and may throw in the relationship towel.
Positive disengagement, on the other hand, is like a time-out. It’s resetting the clock and giving each partner space to process their needs and emotions.
A few points with positive disengagement:
- Have a set amount of time for “time-out”
- Jot down your feelings and perspective regarding the situation
- Suggest 1 or 2 options for a solution that meets both yours and your partner’s needs
- Keep an open mind, and remain emotionally present
- Be open to hearing your partner’s side, try to remain objective
- When re-engaging, leave any anger or harsh feelings back in “time-out” so you aren’t bringing them with you
Once both partners are re-engaged (and calm), now comes the tough part: vulnerability.
In order to minimize the probability of the same argument being stuck on repeat, both partners should be comfortable talking about why they each reacted in a negative way — what core wounds may have been triggered, what vulnerable emotions were felt, and what insights were gained from the experience.
Then, choose an activity you both like and rebuild some quality time together.
Remember, it’s you and your partner against the problem, not you and your partner against each other.
Ekman, P., & Heider, K.G. (1988). The universality of a contempt expression: A replication. Motivation and Emotion, 12, 303–308.
Gottman J.M. (1984). What predicts divorce? Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gottman J.M. (1993). A theory of marital dissolution and stability. Journal of Family Psychology, 7, 57–75.
Schribner, R.A., Chung, J.M., Robins, R.W., et al. (2016). Disposituonal contempt: A first look at the contemptuous person. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(2), 280–309.