You're Not Imagining It—Contempt in Relationships Is Definitely a Thing

Updated 06/20/18

At some point, everyone will be in a relationship that isn't working. Sometimes the reasons are easy to figure out—long distance, an age gap, or conflicting goals, for instance—and other times the exact issue is tough to peg down. But before you overthink your way into possible negative scenarios, or worse, break off a bond that could bounce back, take note of this advice from Dr. Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist: "The first thing to go in a relationship is communication, and the second sure sign of distress is a decrease or disappearance of sex," she says.

As long as you're openly talking with your partner, the problems that naturally arise shouldn't feel like big mysteries. But if you do feel dumbfounded and your other half has gone silent, there may be a chance of contempt. "Contempt is a unique issue in a relationship because it is generally rooted in unexpressed anger that festers and grows into seething disdain," Dr. Fran notes. Clearly this is not a fun aspect of love, but it's something to be aware of as you give your heart to someone else.

Pour yourself a glass of wine, because we're asking Dr. Fran to describe what to do next.

contempt in relationships
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What are the possible red flags of contempt?

"It's when there's distancing or pulling away without explanation," Dr. Fran says, also noting the above warning signs of a decrease in sex and a lack of communication. "Distancing, in a way, is worse than ghosting because a partner is physically there but emotionally not present."

How can someone address contempt constructively with a partner?

Use universal statements: "Using phrases like 'you always' or 'you never' to your partner raises their defenses because it focuses on what's wrong with them," she says. "Instead, use 'I' statements that focus on how you feel without blaming or accusing your partner."

Listen: "During intense disagreements, people tend to interrupt or think about their responses while their partners are talking," Dr. Fran notes. "Instead, listen intently without interrupting, and try to understand and empathize with your partner's feelings."

Validate your partner's feelings: "Everyone is entitled to their own feelings, so do your best not to criticize, judge, belittle your partner, or minimize the importance of their feelings," she continues. "When a person's negative feelings are not validated, it will likely create a barrier in the relationship."

Be honest: "Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable, especially if you know your partner may get angry hearing it. Be brave! Honesty in a relationship is extremely important because it is the fundamental thing that makes a person feel safe," she says. "Even if you think the truth will be hard for your partner to hear, they will appreciate it in the long run."

Be flexible: "You may think your idea is best, but staying open to other opinions is an important ingredient in successful communication," Dr. Fran says.

Stay on task: "When discussing finances, don't allow talk about housework to creep into the conversation," Dr. Fran says. "Stay focused on one topic at a time."

Crack a joke: "Humor can diffuse a rough situation and warm your partner up to you," she says.

Is contempt the sort of feeling that can go away?

"Contempt is a powerful feeling that can absolutely be worked through, go away, and be resolved when dealt with openly, honestly, and directly," Dr. Fran says. "Sometimes couples need help from a clean-slate third party. Reach out to a therapist, pastor, rabbi, priest, counselor, or psychologist if you need an objective guide."

How can couples keep their communication open?

"When dealing with conflicts, each partner must take turns listening to the other without any interruptions. After listening, they must say a narrative statement reflecting what their partner just expressed," she says. "This gives your partner a feeling of being heard, validated, and accepted. No blaming, criticisms, or judgments allowed."

Dr. Fran says that it's important to talk in a space that doesn't have distractions and to strive to be honest but compassionate as you discuss. "Encourage your partner to express anger respectfully and directly to you," she says. "Pent-up anger only festers, grows, and emerges in unwanted ways down the road."

How can couples move forward?

Let differences work for you: "All couples are made with two different people. No two people in the world are just alike. And, after working with hundreds of couples, I'm convinced opposites often do attract," she says. "But, great couples learn to build upon those differences. They build upon each other's strengths and let each other minimize their weaknesses."

Extend grace for the minor annoyances: "People do stuff that gets on our nerves at times. That's true of all of us, maybe even especially with the people we love the most," Dr. Fran notes. "Great couples have learned not to let those little things distract from the major things—like love and commitment."

Serve each other: "There are no 50-50 splits of responsibility in a great partnership," she says. "In the best relationships, it would be difficult to judge who serves one another more. There may be times one gives 100% because the other can't give anything. And there are other times the other gives 100%. Neither complains when it's their turn to give all."

Prioritize time together: "Great couples spend time together," she says. "Life is busy for all of us. Find things to do that both of you enjoy."

Keep no secrets: "There are no hidden issues among great couples. They are vulnerable with each other and open themselves up to the other person completely," Dr. Fran notes. 

Publicly support each other: "Great couples are supportive of each other in public. They handle private issues in private," she says.

Keep no record of wrongs: "Great couples learn to forgive," she says. "There aren't any lingering issues that haven't been resolved."

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Up next: What is "breadcrumbing?" A relationships expert explains.

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