Anger is a normal part of every relationship, whether it is between partners, family, friendships, or work relationships. Still, anger that accumulates and remains unprocessed becomes contempt, something much more corrosive and dangerous to all relationship.
When contempt shows up in a relationship, it’s as if the grave is being prepared for the feelings of love and connection. The relationship may remain in spite of contempt if commitment is built into it, such as a family relationship. But a romantic relationship, such as a marriage, marches towards a slow and painful death with enough accumulated and unprocessed contempt.
If you or your partner have feelings of contempt, these feelings can lead to certain predictable actions. The person feeling resentful may be:
- Less trusting of the other person
- Stop wanting to give as freely in the relationship
- Feel less love or desire for intimacy
- Not want to spend as much together time
As you can imagine, these feelings do not lead to a happy, satisfying relationship. Yet, most people ignore the deteriorating effect on their relationship, trying to continue to have the relationship on top of contempt.
Where Does Contempt Come From?
Contempt is comprised up of old feelings of anger and disappointment. To prevent it from eating your relationship from the inside out, you and your relationship partner need to do something let go of these old feelings.
Uncleared contempt works against the good feelings between you and can be a path to more distance and more negative interaction. Resolving contempt together, if done right, creates understanding, closeness, trust, and love.
First of all, talk to your partner about the state of your relationship. Let them know that you notice less closeness, more frustration with each other, less connection. Talk about how and why both of you are carrying around some old frustration, anger and contempt at each other. Ask if they are willing to work through these feelings with you in some honest, calm conversations about how each of you feels. If you get a yes for an answer, you picked a partner who’s going to work with you to make your relationship better.
Resolving contempt may take a while and depends on the length of your relationship and the amount of contempt each one of you is carrying towards the other. For some couples, the process could take months to complete.
The good news is, if you are committed to resolving the contempt clearing correctly, you will be growing closer to each other with each conversation. This means the time of resolving contempt is also a time of positive relationship building, and is a time well spent.
Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.
Bell, M. (2005). A Woman’s Scorn: Toward a Feminist Defense of Contempt as a Moral Emotion. Hypatia. 20 (4): 80.
Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V (1969). The repertoire of nonverbal behavior: Categories, origins, usage, and encoding. Semiotica, 1, 49–98.
Krivickas, K. M.; Sanchez, L. A.; Kenney, C. T.; Wright, J. D. (2010). Fiery wives and icy husbands: Pre-marital counseling and covenant marriage as buffers against effects of childhood abuse on gendered marital communication?. Social Science Research. 39 (5): 700.
Solomon R.C. (1993). The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life. Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing.
TenHouten, W.D. (2007). General Theory of Emotions and Social Life. New York: Routledge.
Underwood, M. K. (2004). III. Glares of Contempt, Eye Rolls of Disgust and Turning Away to Exclude: Non-Verbal Forms of Social Aggression among Girls. Feminism & Psychology. 14 (3): 371.