Are You Bringing Toxic Contempt to Your Relationship?

by | Feb 21, 2021

You may not realize it when you speak contemptuously, for all sorts of reasons, but if you’re contemptuous of your partner, you’re being emotionally abusive. You may have been brought up in a household where scorn for a partner was par for the course and a familiar way for you to behave. Or you may feel your back is against the wall, so you display hostility as a defense mechanism.


The trouble is, contempt is toxic to your relationship and the biggest predictor of trouble. Some people use contempt as a way of controlling their partner by overpowering them. They use contempt as a weapon. Extreme contempt conveys disgust and is particularly harmful.

Are You Bringing Toxic Contempt To Your Relationship? Nancy'S Counseling Corner

When It’s You Against Your Partner


But if you are sometimes contemptuous, there is hope. You may be standing up for yourself. It’s when you are against your partner, committed to destroying him, that you have serious problems. But if you might roll your eyes at something your partner has said or done, it’s not so bad. It’s a form of contempt, but not nearly as toxic as name-calling, hurling insults and relentless belittling with intent to hurt.


Expressing More Subtle Contempt


In addition to eye-rolling, another form of subtle contempt is behaving as if you are superior. You might say something like, “I would never do that to you.” It seems harmless enough, but it shows you feel you are better than your partner—above him. You are the adult and he is the misbehaving child. That is certainly a form of contempt. It still hurts your partner, even though it might not be quite as toxic as deliberate abuse.


You’re Just Being Honest


“I’m just telling it like it is.” This is a wonderful excuse because it shuts people up pretty effectively. Until they start thinking that your honesty is a little too brutal and totally unnecessary. Example: “Why did you have to pig all the leftover cake? No wonder you’ve gotten so fat.” That’s pretty cruel. This is better: “You know how I love that cake. I wish you would think to save me a piece next time.”


How to Stop Being Contemptuous


When you are contemptuous toward your partner, it can feel pretty good. You got in a zinger and it feels genuinely satisfying. You feel you’ve expressed your true emotions. But really, when you’re contemptuous it says much more about you than your partner. You are expressing disapproval. You are making a judgement. You are being negative. And your partner will resent it. So instead of being brutally honest, just be honest. With yourself. Yes, you like cake. But what you really want more than a piece of cake is for your partner to consider you—to think of you and what you might want. When you learn to stop yourself from a hurtful remark and find the truth beneath it, then you can rephrase your distress into a positive statement.



Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here:



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