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Contempt in Relationships: A Toxic Destroyer and How to Avoid it

Contempt in relationships can be subtle yet corrosive, gradually undermining the foundation of a connection.

Contempt in Relationships


What is Contempt in Relationships?

It's crucial to recognize behavioral signs of contempt early on to address and rectify issues. Here are 20 behavioral signs that may indicate the presence of contempt in a relationship:

  1. Rolling Eyes: A dismissive eye roll when the partner is speaking or expressing themselves.

  2. Sarcastic Remarks: Regular use of sarcasm to belittle or mock the partner's thoughts or feelings.

  3. Mocking Tone: Speaking in a condescending or mocking tone, undermining the partner's credibility.

  4. Name-Calling: Engaging in name-calling or using derogatory language during disagreements.

  5. Dismissing Ideas: Consistently dismissing or belittling the partner's opinions and ideas.

  6. Expressing Disgust: Facial expressions or gestures that convey a sense of disgust or disdain.

  7. Ignoring: Ignoring the partner or giving them the silent treatment as a form of punishment.

  8. Contemptuous Laughter: Laughing at the partner in a derisive or contemptuous manner.

  9. Interrupting: Frequently interrupting the partner while they are speaking, showing a lack of respect.

  10. Critical Remarks: Constantly criticizing the partner, focusing on their perceived flaws and weaknesses.

  11. Scornful Body Language: Negative body language, such as sneering, scoffing, or dismissive gestures.

  12. Expressing Superiority: Behaving in a way that communicates a sense of superiority over the partner.

  13. Demeaning Jokes: Making jokes at the partner's expense that are meant to humiliate or degrade.

  14. Public Humiliation: Disparaging the partner in front of others, leading to embarrassment.

  15. Lack of Empathy: Showing a consistent lack of empathy or understanding towards the partner's emotions.

  16. Defensive Attitude: Reacting defensively to any criticism, refusing to take responsibility for one's actions.

  17. Constant Nitpicking: Regularly finding fault with trivial aspects of the partner's behavior.

  18. Avoidance: Deliberately avoiding discussions or situations that involve the partner.

  19. Refusing Compromise: An unwillingness to compromise or find common ground in conflicts.

  20. Belittling Achievements: Minimizing or downplaying the partner's achievements and successes.

It's important to note that occasional disagreements and conflicts are normal in relationships. However, when contemptuous behaviors become pervasive and routine, they can lead to significant damage. Recognizing these signs early on allows couples to address issues constructively, seek professional help if needed, and work towards building a healthier, more respectful relationship.

The Effects of Contempt, According to Experts

Here are some important insights into the perspectives of leading relationship experts based on their previous work and views on the deleterious nature of contempt in relationships.

A Signal of Impending Demise

Renowned for his extensive research on relationships, Dr. John Gottman has highlighted contempt as one of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," signaling a relationship's impending demise.

According to him, contempt is particularly destructive, as "it conveys disgust and superiority, which are absolutely toxic."

Contempt is sulfuric acid for love. It erodes the bond that holds a couple securely together.
- Dr. John Gottman

A Destroyer of Emotional Safety

As the developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Dr. Sue Johnson emphasizes the importance of emotional connection in relationships. She notes that contempt is a destructive force that hinders the fundamental need for emotional safety and bonding.

Contempt is a corrosive emotion, and it erodes the basic bonds that hold couples together.
- Dr. Sue Johnson

A Poison to Well-Being

Co-founder of The Gottman Institute, Dr. Julie Gottman stresses the long-term impact of contempt on relationships. According to her, contempt not only damages the emotional connection between partners but can also have detrimental effects on physical health.

Contempt poisons the atmosphere. It breeds more contempt, and it can even have negative impacts on the immune system and overall well-being.
- Dr. Julie Gottman

A Creator of Emotional Wounds

Renowned for his work on Imago Relationship Therapy, Dr. Harville Hendrix discusses the deep psychological impact of contempt. He argues that contemptuous behavior creates emotional wounds that, if left unaddressed, can fester and lead to relationship breakdown.

Contempt is a wound that festers. It leaves scars on the emotional landscape of a relationship, making it increasingly difficult to rebuild trust and intimacy.
- Dr. Harville Hendrix

A Toxic Cycle

A researcher in communication and relationships, Dr. Michelle Givertz has explored the destructive nature of contemptuous communication patterns. Her work underscores the role of contempt in creating a negative cycle that perpetuates relationship distress.

Contempt is like a poison that seeps into the communication patterns of a relationship, creating a toxic cycle that can be challenging to break.
- Dr. Michelle Givertz

While specific quotes and statistics may vary, these perspectives from leading relationship experts collectively emphasize the toxic and corrosive impact of contempt on the fabric of a relationship.

Recognizing and addressing contemptuous behaviors early on is crucial for preserving and nurturing a healthy, thriving connection between partners.

5 Ways Contempt Leads to Relationship Destruction

Contempt is considered one of the most destructive elements in a relationship and can significantly contribute to the breakdown of a marriage. Here are the top five reasons why contempt often leads to divorce.

Contempt Erodes Emotional Connection

Contempt conveys a sense of superiority and disrespect, causing emotional distance between partners. Over time, the erosion of emotional connection can lead to a feeling of detachment and apathy, making it challenging for couples to sustain a meaningful and fulfilling relationship.

Contempt Yields Communication Breakdown

Contempt is often expressed through negative communication patterns, such as sarcasm, criticism, and belittling remarks. These patterns create a toxic environment where open, healthy communication becomes increasingly difficult. As communication breaks down, couples struggle to resolve conflicts and address issues constructively, further contributing to marital discord.

Contempt Creates a Negative Impact on Mental and Physical Health

Research has shown that living in a consistently contemptuous relationship can have detrimental effects on mental and physical health. Constant exposure to contemptuous behavior can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression. Over time, the cumulative impact of these health issues can strain the relationship to the breaking point.

Contempt Undermines Trust and Respect

Contempt undermines the foundation of trust and respect in a marriage. When one partner consistently treats the other with disdain or disrespect, it erodes the trust that is essential for a strong and resilient relationship. Without trust and respect, couples find it challenging to navigate the ups and downs of married life.

Contempt Escalates Conflict

Contempt often contributes to a negative cycle of escalating conflict. As one partner expresses contempt, the other may respond defensively or with further contempt, creating a destructive pattern of interaction. This cycle of escalation can lead to a point where conflicts become explosive and difficult to manage, pushing the relationship toward a breaking point.

In summary, contempt in a marriage leads to divorce primarily because it erodes the emotional connection between partners, disrupts communication, negatively impacts mental and physical health, undermines trust and respect, and contributes to an unhealthy escalation of conflicts. Recognizing and addressing contemptuous behaviors early on is crucial for couples seeking to build and maintain a strong, lasting relationship.

What Does the Bible Teach About Avoiding Contempt?

In the context of biblical teachings, contempt goes against the principles of love, compassion, and unity that are emphasized throughout the Scriptures. Here are ten major points the Bible makes about how to avoid contempt in relationships.

Love One Another

The foundation of all relationships, according to the Bible, is love. Jesus, in His teachings, emphasized the importance of loving one another. Contempt is incompatible with this divine commandment and serves as a barrier to the expression of genuine love.

I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you too are to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you have love and unselfish concern for one another.
- John 13:34-35

Guard Your Heart

The book of Proverbs advises believers to guard their hearts diligently. Contempt often stems from a hardened heart, and maintaining a heart filled with love and compassion is essential for nurturing healthy relationships.

Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.
- Proverbs 4:23

Forgive and Reconcile

Contempt can lead to bitterness and resentment. The Bible encourages believers to forgive as they have been forgiven by God. Reconciliation is the pathway toward healing broken relationships.

bearing graciously with one another, and willingly forgiving each other if one has a cause for complaint against another; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so should you forgive.
- Colossians 3:13

Speak Words of Edification

The words we speak have the power to build up or tear down. Ephesians instructs believers to use words that edify and encourage, avoiding words that promote contempt and discord.

Do not let unwholesome [foul, profane, worthless, vulgar] words ever come out of your mouth, but only such speech as is good for building up others, according to the need and the occasion, so that it will be a blessing to those who hear [you speak].
- Ephesians 4:29

Humble Yourself

Contempt often arises from pride and a sense of superiority. Philippians teaches humility, urging believers to consider others more significant than themselves and to look out for the interests of others.

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit [through factional motives, or strife], but with [an attitude of] humility [being neither arrogant nor self-righteous], regard others as more important than yourselves.
- Philippians 2:3-4

Be Patient

Patience is a virtue that can diffuse contemptuous attitudes. The famous "Love Chapter" in 1 Corinthians emphasizes the importance of patience in demonstrating love.

Love endures with patience and serenity, love is kind and thoughtful, and is not jealous or envious; love does not brag and is not proud or arrogant.
- 1 Corinthians 13:4

Avoid Gossip and Slander

Contempt can manifest through gossip and slander. James warns against speaking ill of others, emphasizing the importance of speaking in a manner that reflects God's love.

Believers, do not speak against or slander one another. He who speaks [self-righteously] against a brother or judges his brother [hypocritically], speaks against the Law and judges the Law.
- James 4:11

Seek Wisdom

Wisdom is essential in handling relationships, as it enables believers to navigate conflicts with understanding and grace, reducing the likelihood of contemptuous behavior.

He who is slow to anger has great understanding [and profits from his self-control], but he who is quick-tempered exposes and exalts his foolishness [for all to see].
- Proverbs 14:29

Maintain Unity

The Bible encourages believers to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Contempt disrupts unity, and believers are called to actively pursue harmony.

Make every effort to keep the oneness of the Spirit in the bond of peace [each individual working together to make the whole successful].
- Ephesians 4:3

Model Christ's Love

Ultimately, believers are called to imitate Christ's sacrificial love. Contempt has no place in a heart that seeks to emulate the love of Christ.

Therefore become imitators of God [copy Him and follow His example], as well-beloved children [imitate their father]; and walk continually in love [that is, value one another—practice empathy and compassion, unselfishly seeking the best for others], just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and sacrifice to God [slain for you, so that it became] a sweet fragrance.
- Ephesians 5:1-2

The Bible provides profound guidance on overcoming contempt in relationships by emphasizing the principles of love, forgiveness, humility, and unity.

By aligning our actions with these biblical teachings, we can foster healthier and more fulfilling relationships, reflecting the transformative power of God's love in our lives.

What to Do in a Moment of Conflict Instead

Navigating conflicts in a healthy and constructive manner is crucial for maintaining strong relationships. Here are 20 positive behaviors that individuals can practice in the midst of an argument to foster a healthier and more productive exchange.

  1. Active Listening: Truly listen to your partner's perspective, seeking to understand their point of view without interrupting.

  2. Empathy: Put yourself in your partner's shoes to understand and validate their feelings and experiences.

  3. Use "I" Statements: Express your feelings using "I" statements to communicate your perspective without blaming or accusing.

  4. Take a Timeout: If emotions are escalating, suggest taking a short break to cool down and collect your thoughts before continuing the discussion.

  5. Choose Your Battles: Prioritize the issues that truly matter and avoid turning every disagreement into a major confrontation.

  6. Express Gratitude: Remind your partner of the positive aspects of the relationship and express gratitude for their strengths.

  7. Express Needs Clearly: Clearly communicate your needs and expectations, promoting understanding and collaboration.

  8. Practice Patience: Be patient with the process and avoid rushing to conclusions. Give both parties the time they need to express themselves.

  9. Seek Solutions, Not Blame: Focus on finding solutions to the problem rather than assigning blame. Collaborate on ways to address issues together.

  10. Validate Emotions: Acknowledge your partner's emotions and let them know that their feelings are valid, even if you disagree on certain points.

  11. Maintain Respect: Treat your partner with respect even when you disagree, avoiding disrespectful language or gestures.

  12. Use "We" Language: Frame discussions using "we" language to emphasize unity and a shared commitment to resolution.

  13. Find Common Ground: Identify areas where you both agree and use them as a foundation for finding solutions to disagreements.

  14. Express Love: Remind your partner of your love and commitment, reinforcing the importance of the relationship.

  15. Stay Focused on the Issue: Avoid bringing up unrelated past issues. Stay focused on the current problem to prevent escalation.

  16. Apologize and Forgive: If you're at fault, offer a sincere apology. Likewise, be willing to forgive your partner when they apologize.

  17. Use Calming Techniques: Employ calming techniques such as deep breathing or counting to ten to manage your own emotions during the argument.

  18. Encourage Compromise: Be open to finding middle ground and making compromises that benefit both parties.

  19. Counseling or Mediation: If the disagreement persists, consider seeking the assistance of a counselor or mediator to facilitate healthy communication and resolution.

By incorporating these positive behaviors into your approach during conflicts, you can contribute to a more supportive, understanding, and resilient relationship.

Ultimately: Remember Their Identity is in Christ (And So is Yours!)

Reflecting on Bible verses that emphasize a person's identity in Christ can be a powerful way to maintain a healthy perspective and keep emotions in check during conflicts. Here are ten verses that can serve as reminders of a loved one's identity in Christ.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
- Ephesians 2:10

Reflection: Remembering that your loved one is God's handiwork, created for a purpose, can foster appreciation and respect.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
- 1 Peter 2:9

Reflection: Acknowledging your loved one as a chosen and special possession of God can shift the focus to their inherent worth.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
- Colossians 3:12

Reflection: Viewing your loved one as dearly loved by God can inspire a response of compassion and patience in the midst of conflict.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
- Galatians 3:26

Reflection: Recognizing your loved one as a fellow child of God can foster a sense of unity and shared identity.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
- 2 Corinthians 5:17

Reflection: Remembering the transformative power of Christ in your loved one's life can encourage a focus on growth and change.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
- Romans 8:37

Reflection: Considering your loved one as more than a conqueror through Christ's love can inspire confidence and resilience.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
- Jeremiah 29:11

Reflection: Recognizing God's plans for your loved one's future can bring a sense of assurance and hope.

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.
- 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Reflection: Viewing your loved one as a temple of the Holy Spirit can foster a sense of reverence and honor.

I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
- Philippians 4:13

Reflection: Reminding yourself that your loved one can do all things through Christ's strength can cultivate empathy and support.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
- Psalm 139:14

Reflection: Acknowledging the wonderful creation of your loved one by God can inspire gratitude and appreciation.

During conflicts, meditating on these verses can help you maintain a Christ-centered perspective, fostering love, patience, and understanding toward your loved one.

Closing Thoughts

In the face of relationship conflicts, it is paramount for individuals to adopt a solution-focused mindset. Rather than dwelling on the issues that give rise to contention, prioritizing the identification and implementation of constructive solutions can foster a more positive atmosphere. By approaching conflicts with a determination to find resolutions, individuals can shift the focus away from blame or criticism, allowing both parties to collaboratively address the root causes of the disagreement. This approach encourages a sense of shared responsibility and mutual growth within the relationship.

Respecting one another as individuals is a fundamental aspect of maintaining healthy relationships during times of conflict. Acknowledging the unique worth and identity of each person involved creates a foundation of mutual respect and understanding. Even in the midst of disagreements, emphasizing respect reinforces the notion that each individual is valued and has a voice worth hearing. This fosters an environment in which conflicts can be approached with empathy and open communication, reducing the likelihood of contemptuous behavior.

Furthermore, keeping one's identity in Christ at the forefront is crucial for maintaining a Christ-centered perspective during relationship conflicts. Recognizing that both individuals are beloved children of God encourages a compassionate approach, grounded in the teachings of love, forgiveness, and grace. Prioritizing identity in Christ reinforces the idea that each person is a work in progress, capable of growth and transformation. By centering the relationship in these principles, individuals can navigate conflicts with a spirit of humility, forgiveness, and unwavering compassion, thus avoiding the destructive path of contempt and ensuring the continued smooth progression of their relationships.


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