How To Address Contempt In Relationships

Updated March 13, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

So, it seems that your partner doesn't want anything to do with you, and you have no idea how to fix it. Contempt in any relationship can stem from a lot of different sources - it usually happens gradually over time without you noticing the signs immediately. 

Still, it can also be the result of a specific event, such as cheating. In this article, you will learn practical ways to respond to contempt in your relationship or marriage so that you can both have a happy, loving relationship.

Contempt is the number one predictor of divorce

What is contempt?

When discussing contempt in any relationship, it is often confused with other communication issues, especially criticism and complaining. According to John Gottman, co-founder of the Gottman Method, a popular and highly successful form of couple's counseling, four distinct communication flaws can bring about the end of a relationship or marriage. 

They are known as The Four Horsemen, a term that originates from the Bible that refers to conquest, hunger, war, and death and contributing to the end of times. However, the Four Horsemen in relationships refer to criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.

If left unchanged by ignoring opportunities to address contempt, two people in a relationship can lose all respect for another, which can lead to significantly negative behavior. This feeling is associated with a strong sense of anger, hatred, disgust, and the sense that a person finds something completely worthless.

Therefore, while both criticism and contempt are both things that need to be addressed in a relationship or marriage, contempt is regarded as the worst of the Four Horsemen, will need extra care, and is the most significant predictor of divorce

Contempt for a person takes its toll on anything from physical health to the human soul on both sides. The ability to respond to contempt takes uncompromisingly honest communication even in the face of eye rolling, passive aggressive behavior, and anything else that leaves you feeling disrespected. Because of this, it must be addressed as soon as possible, and the remainder of this article will teach you how to respond to contempt.

Ask why your partner feels contempt 

You won't get anywhere by sitting around wondering what could be wrong and why your partner may be feeling contempt towards you; you'll have to talk to your partner in a direct and responsible way if you want to know what's causing the animosity in your relationship or marriage.

Doing this might seem intimidating, especially if you aren't on very good speaking terms with your partner right now, but it's something that needs to be done at some point. Perhaps you've already tried attempting this, and your significant other is stubborn and won't budge at your attempts to have a conversation. This is pretty common, and it might require a professional's assistance to help open up communication lines between you and the contemptuous person to restore respect.

However, if they are furious with you and the reason for it happened very recently, it might be best to let things cool down for a bit before you try to mend things from the recent past. Knowing when to address the key to learning how to respond to contempt.

Choose your words carefully

While having a dialogue with your significant other, in general, is crucial to addressing contempt in relationships, there are more specific details to make the most out of what you need to say. The timing of your inquiry and how you approach your partner can be just as important and can make a significant difference in the outcome.

For example, you don't want to go up to your partner and say, "Why do you hate me?" or something accusatory like, "Why are you being cold and distant towards me?" While such a statement will probably get their attention, it certainly isn't a productive sign, and you're already getting off on the wrong foot. You also don't want to be demanding either -- even though you feel the urgency to fix your relationship or marriage issues -- as this may create a regretful response.

Instead, focus on the first step and try taking a more polite approach; you can be direct and non-confrontational at the same time. Avoid making this about you or your partner as individuals, and say words like "us" or "we" as a specific action. For instance, you can say something along the lines of, “Our relationship just hasn't been the same anymore -- would you like to talk about it?" This way, you are saying how you feel and what you realize, but at the same time, you are more inviting with your approach in a positive way of kindness and hope. 

Always be honest with what you have to say as well, and don't tell your partner what you think they want to hear; you need to rebuild trust in your relationship. A relationship or marriage can wither if you are acting contemptuous in your own way.

Avoid being dismissive or defensive

If you are on the right track and your partner is laying out all their concerns on the table for you, listen to them carefully, and don't dismiss what they have to say. While you might not agree with what they saying, their feelings are legitimate. It's best to consider everything said and refrain from giving any disgust via your body language, or making exaggerated insults. You can't assume that you know your partner's feelings, and you might have never realized something happened that could have potentially been offensive. 

One piece of advice is that it is important to approach the matter while maintaining hope for your relationships. Bring a positive message of appreciation for a first step towards your life in marriage, as a family, or as a couple.

You might notice some strong language from your partner, and your feelings might end up getting hurt in the process, but it's important to try not to deflect these emotions back at them with what is happening, as it can just make them even angrier with you. Even if they call you names, don't use this as a green light to do the same, as name calling can create more contempt. This goes for the use of mocking and sarcasm as well.

Contempt is the number one predictor of divorce

Whatever you do, do not blame your significant other for the problems that are surrounding your relationship or marriage. Remember - defensive behaviors are one of Gottman's Four Horsemen. If you are personally being criticized or blamed for them, it's okay to disagree, but don't try to contest it, as this can also create irritation. The main goal is to let your partner express their feelings right now to have better dialogue shortly by having everyone on the same page.

Listen attentively and refrain from running away

On the other side of the coin, while some people tend to become defensive when placed in very uncomfortable situations, some become evasive and shut down completely when trying to face the relationship's problems, even if they initiate the conversation.

This is known as stonewalling, and it is another one of the Four Horsemen, but it can also happen in response to contempt. In addition to turning away and avoiding the issue, people who stonewall might become "tuned out" or might even try to distract themselves. Stonewalling often occurs due to the build-up of negativity in the relationship or marriage and can quickly become overwhelming. This may look like regularly ignoring your partner, which becomes a rational way to cope while displaying contemptuous behavior, even if it is subconscious.

However, it is also a bad habit to get into and a hard one to break. Instead, try to listen carefully to what your partner is saying and confront the issues head-on. If things seem to be getting heated, try to put the conversation on pause and return to it when you both have calmed down. This is a more effective way to navigate the situation rather than turning away from it or shutting down in the middle of a conversation.

Be mindful of your non-verbal body language

Even if you are just as upset at your partner as they are, strive not to demonstrate specific behaviors if you want to make progress in having a relationship free of contempt. Like choosing your words carefully and not getting defensive, there are non-verbal signs that can also be just as important.

If you are in early talks with your significant other right now about why there is contempt in the relationship or marriage, you'll want to be aware of your body language at all times and avoid using derisive or mocking facial expressions, off-putting body language, or other behaviors that may seem passive-aggressive or directly or indirectly contemptuous. This can include things like rolling your eyes, gritting your teeth, grimacing, crossing arms, and sighing loudly.

The posture of a person can also make a difference as well - if a person is slouching in their seat while talking with their partner when on the receiving end, they’re possibly going to give off the vibe that they don't care deep inside, even if that person is the one bringing up the issue. 

How you respond to contempt can be equally important. Sit up straight when talking with your partner, as this will make you appear serious about what you have to say, as well as attentive to what your partner wishes to communicate. Lastly, if you don't know the answer to something, don't shrug if you don't know what to say to a question; use your words - even if it's a simple "I don't know what to say."

Couples therapy as an antidote to the four horsemen

Contempt in a relationship can feel difficult to overcome for any person. There is a reason why it's considered the worst of the four communication issues that plague relationships and the largest predictor for divorce.

Even if the odds seem stacked against you, your problems are fixable, and importantly, you don't have to tackle them alone. Learning how to respond to contempt can be extremely difficult. Counseling is available, and even some of the most dysfunctional marriages have been restored by seeking professional help.

At Regain, licensed therapists who are experienced in helping couples like you experiencing contempt and other issues are available online. Oftentimes family will express contempt, and relationship counseling between family is also available via Regain. Meeting virtually can relieve roadblocks such as organizing a session with your significant other because you won't have to travel anywhere unless you both live separately. You can also send a text message directly to your online therapist if you need advice in a heated moment.

Therapy can help you understand why contempt has been a major problem in your relationship. You can also gain the skills to address future issues as they arise by learning you the communication skills necessary to maintain a happy relationship. Numerous couples have sought online couples therapy for various relationship obstacles and experienced positive outcomes. 

In a recent study, researchers split a sample of participants into two cohorts, in which one received face-to-face therapy for relationship challenges and the other received online therapy. After the trial was completed, both groups reported improvements in relationship satisfaction and decreases in symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. There were no significant differences reported between the two cohorts.


When you feel contempt toward or from your partner, it is easy to get worked up or frightened about the future of your marriage. Know that regardless of what happens, you always have control over your response. When it comes to disagreements in any close relationship, how you respond can ultimately steer the relationship in a positive or negative course. When you’re ready, a compassionate and nonjudgmental online therapist at Regain is available to help you navigate troubled waters with confidence and grace.

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