The Number One Relationship Killer

Silence, conflicts, sexual disconnection—nothing is as dangerous as this emotion.


by Maggie May Ethridge

photo courtesy of Thais Ramos Varela

filed under Advice, Fighting, Science of Love

When her then-boyfriend cheated on her with his ex-girlfriend, Caroline felt the expected array of emotions—jealousy, anger, hurt—but these quickly faded, and she was left with a corrosive contempt. “All of the sudden,” she says, “I was overwhelmed with this feeling I’d never had before, this mixture of dislike and wanting to just be done with him.” Caroline didn’t realize it in that moment, but what she was feeling is the number one relationship killer.

Contempt is a potent mix of anger and disgust, a feeling that indicates not only a surplus of unrecognized emotions in the relationship, but also an imbalance in the way the partners see each other. When partners perceive each other as equally valuable and worthy, that core supports the relationship during rough times. Even if one partner is hurt or angered by their lover’s actions, they can approach the difficulty with a basic respect and compassion for the other person. Although it may be hard to understand why the other person feels and acts the way they do, the assumption is that there are reasons that make sense, reasons that can be worked through and eventually understood. But when contempt is present, this base assumption of the other person’s inherent worthiness is gone.

Contempt is so destructive to a loving bond that it can be used with 93% accuracy to predict future divorce, according John Gottman, the author and psychology professor who runs The Gottman Institute, which has been researching what makes or breaks relationships for decades. Gottman’s research has found four major components that will end a marriage: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt; contempt, he says, is the most destructive of these.

Greg began dating his boyfriend Jake with few expectations; they both wanted sex, companionship and fun. Within months, though, Greg recalls, “We were crazy. We couldn’t be around each other enough. We were together every day, after work; we used up all our vacation time.” This beautiful surprise was soon followed by another, crueller one: Jake began to “fight dirty,” Greg says. “It was obvious that every time he got angry at me, he felt contemptuous. He’d get this look, this expression I couldn’t stand, and he’d talk to me like he was a frustrated parent.” Eventually, it ended their relationship. “He wouldn’t or couldn’t even try. It was too painful for me. He’d get mad and just go straight into this tone of voice, like he couldn’t stand me.”

The reason that contempt arises is a crucial component to overcoming it.Contempt doesn’t have to sound the death knell of a relationship, unless its cause is irredeemable, or a signal that you need to leave the relationship for your own health. If you feel contempt for a partner who is abusive, that’s not a sign to work toward compassion, it’s a sign to leave. If you feel contempt for a partner that you love but are struggling with, there might be a way through.  

Perhaps one of the reasons contempt proves so destructive is that overcoming it can take such emotional effort. If you often or reflexively feel contempt for people, if contempt is something that arises even in less important scenarios (your partner lost the keys again), there might be hard work ahead.

Contempt can be self-protective, a way of moving away from intimacy once an issue arises that involves emotional effort or vulnerability. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher and author, writes in Start Where You Are: A Guide To Compassionate Living, “If we were to make a list of people we don’t like—people we find obnoxious, threatening, or worthy of contempt—we would find out a lot about those aspects of ourselves we can’t face.” When Chodron advises us to “meet contempt with compassion,” she means for ourselves, as well. What we fear or loathe in ourselves, we will project onto others. For instance, if you have been raised to see mental illness as a weakness, a moral failing, or an excuse for bad behavior, and you fall in love with someone with severe anxiety, what will your emotional response be? If it is contempt, is that a signal that the relationship is broken, or that growth is necessary?

Greg and Jake broke up and did not speak for years. When they ran into each other at a friend’s party, Jake took Greg aside. He apologized for his behavior during their relationship, and said that he took responsibility for the contempt with which he had treated Greg. Greg accepted the gracious apology, and still feels sad that the relationship didn’t have a chance. “We were falling in love,” he says. “But that wasn’t something I could deal with.”

“Contempt is the weapon of the weak and a defense against one’s own despised and unwanted feelings,” says psychologist Alice Miller. Perhaps this is not always true, but in a relationship worth saving, this idea is worth considering.

Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes from a Marriage; you can find her on her blog, Flux Capacitor.

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