The Silent Emotion That Can Ruin A Relationship

Key differences between indifference, contempt and disengagement.

Annie Tanasugarn, PhD
Mar 25 · 7 min read
nuvolanvicata/Shutterstock

“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.

Indifference

In casual or transactional situations, indifference is not only the most appropriate non-emotion to undertake, with practice it can become almost automatic.

Contempt

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.

Positive Disengagement

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.

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

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

Annie Tanasugarn, PhD

Written by

Psychologist. Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Certified Trauma & Addictions Specialist. Specializes in BPD, cPTSD & emotional/behavioral addiction.

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

Annie Tanasugarn, PhD

Written by

Psychologist. Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Certified Trauma & Addictions Specialist. Specializes in BPD, cPTSD & emotional/behavioral addiction.

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

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