And when we’ve reached contempt, the way back to a good relationship is close to impossible. Contempt is the worse of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as John Gottman defines the perils that a relationship must learn to avoid so to stay healthy: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.
When one of the partners has reached the point where she/he feels that her/his partner is unworthy of respect and can only find meaning in condemning the partner, then she/he is experiencing the darkest side of discontent: contempt.
As the butterflies in our stomach stop waving their wings, and partners begin to settle into a long-term relationship, rarely partners don’t experience discontent towards certain behavior or characteristic of their partner. People stay together because they can love or at least tolerate the other one’s flaws.
But since we are live matter, we change. We transform, we become. We can’t stay the same. And we wake up one day incapable to (even) tolerate that flaw. And that flaw stops being just a flaw, and it can become the actual definition of our loved one. We can’t see past that flaw. It’s like a lens that distorts the entire picture.
How can that be? How do we get from love to contempt?
There isn’t just one reason. Since there is no single reason that makes people experience the tormenting feeling of holding someone in contempt. Make no mistake: experiencing hatred is a torment. The one being held in contempt might feel terrible, but so does the one holding him there.
Contempt is a form of punishment. When you feel contempt for someone you use to love, you punish both that person and yourself. There is always a reason for which you got there. An expectation your partner didn’t live up to. She/he didn’t understand something, didn’t act, or react as she/he should’ve, so she/he became unworthy of you and your love.
You feel you deserved something, and since she/he didn’t give it to you, you provide it to yourself by punishing him with your feelings. But what you experience is not rewarding. It feels like a punishment, too, because you feel guilty for not loving her/him anymore.
Two ways made you get here: you either didn’t talk to your partner about that event where he did you wrong, or you’ve spoken, and your partner dismissed the importance of it to you. There is a third possibility, where your partner is a rebound—a stage in your emotional life where you heal or punish something from your past.
When that partner wasn’t meant to be your happily-ever-after story in the first place, in this case, the contempt becomes the warning feeling that the process is over. You’ve done healing or punishing, and you have to move on.
But if your partner isn’t a rebound, and you are living the reality of a true love story, then contempt comes from communication flaws. Withholding your feeling won’t make them go away. The contempt will escalate, and so will your partner’s behavior. The only way out of this vicious circle is to talk.
How do we talk about contempt?
There is no excellent way to do it. And sometimes, even beautiful can even prove to be counterproductive, if our partner is a bully. This doesn’t mean that we should try to impose ourselves on the force. But we do need to impose awareness of our feelings and needs.
It is important to remember that most of the people can’t bear to be perceived as abusers. And telling someone, they’ve hurt you equals telling them they abused you. So, it’s essential to let them know they are not that to you. Just as important as letting them know that their action made you feel the way they did.
Try talking about how you’ve felt and are feeling now without telling them why you think they’ve acted the way they did. This is a mined field. People don’t like other people, telling them why they do things. It’s interpretation. And none of us enjoy interpretation when it is not flattering.
So, don’t assume you know what your partner meant. Focus on what you know about yourself and your feelings. This creates intimacy and the need for your partner to help you overcome those feelings. That is if she/he cares for you and not just her/himself.
It is also crucial that you keep in mind the possibility that you’ve misinterpreted his behavior. Or that you are projecting your past onto his actions. Our past history is what makes us able to understand current history. But emotional knowledge isn’t science, and it can deceive us. We might see things that aren’t there that we put there from our past. It can be hard to separate things.
If you think you’ve reached that point, you might consider going to couple’s therapy. Just know this: contempt doesn’t just go away. It will corrode your relationship and your mental health until there is nothing left to erode.