Of all the tell-tale signs that a marriage may be in trouble, contempt is the worst. There are plenty of reasons contempt is considered the greatest predictor of divorce. And if you have reached this stage in your marriage, you may not see any way out. But if you can commit to learning how to stop feeling contempt, you can – even against the odds – save your marriage.
You can even get past merely saving it to recapturing the love that first brought you together.
Even the happiest marriages have their moments.
She doesn’t like the way he leaves dishes in the sink and assumes he doesn’t care about her feelings. He doesn’t like how much money she spends on clothes and assumes she doesn’t care about their bills.
Criticism in marriage relationships is an easy pattern to fall into. People get frustrated, tired, angry – even bored with the “same ol’ story” they are writing in their marriages. Pet peeves and irritations turn into global accusations of “always” and “never,” setting up the accused to be defensive. And defensiveness, like criticism, contempt, and stonewalling, is a predictor of a marriage’s demise.
The danger with criticism is that it is a slippery slope into contempt. And knowing how to stop feeling contempt is more difficult than recognizing and repairing a pattern of criticism.
Both patterns, however, signal a marriage at risk. And both — along with their negative responses, defensiveness and stonewalling — take a dedicated effort to turn around.
If you are in a contemptuous marriage, you have a choice to make before the contempt makes the choice for you. You will have to learn how to communicate with your spouse better, even when you’re angry. And you will most likely need the intervention and guidance of experts who specialize in at-risk relationships.
Why is contempt so dangerous? And why is it so difficult to learn how to stop feeling contempt toward your spouse once you feel it?
If the success of marriage is grounded in respect and equality, then contempt – a combination of disrespect and disgust – is its evil twin. The contemptuous person is steeped in moral superiority and considers his/her spouse to be unworthy of time, respect, or basic consideration.
Learning to recognize and reconstruct your communication patterns is so important because contempt is an accumulation of stewing emotions. Disappointment and other negative emotions turn into resentment. Resentment gets stuffed…and then festers. And eventually (and inevitably) it leaks out – as sarcasm, name-calling, judgments, mocking, and mean humor.
Overcoming contempt involves much the same strategy as preventing it in the first place. And at the heart of the effort is communication — with yourself and with your spouse.
Below are essential steps for how to stop feeling contempt toward your spouse and get that loving feeling back.
- Stop the contemptuous behavior.
You may not understand what’s happening in your marriage. And your contempt may feel so raging inside you that you actually look for ways to make your spouse feel as beneath you as possible.But if you are going to give your marriage a chance of surviving, you have to at least start by stopping the destructive behavior. Stop yourself from spewing sarcasm and cruel comments at your spouse. Refuse to put down your spouse, no matter what you feel.
At the very least, while you work on your own role in your marriage, stop your contemptuous behavior.
- Search yourself for the source of your resentment and criticism.
Contempt comes from a build-up of uncommunicated (or miscommunicated) disappointments and dissatisfactions. Perhaps you have tried to communicate your needs to your spouse in the past and haven’t gotten the response you want or need. Perhaps you honestly believe that your spouse doesn’t care about or love you. Perhaps you feel alone in your marriage.Whatever it is that is fueling your contempt, you need to get clear about it. Working with a therapist for this delicate work can help you gain clarity more quickly. It can also help you separate what is really about you from what is really about your spouse.
- Complain, don’t criticize.
Complaining probably isn’t something you would think of as a positive tool for how to stop feeling contempt toward your spouse. But if you follow Gottman’s three-part formula for presenting a complaint, you increase your chances of getting your needs met.Begin by expressing a feeling — not a judgment or criticism. “I feel sad/worried/hurt….” Then describe the situation or behavior that leads to that feeling. “…when you don’t respond to my messages during the day.” Finally, state a positive behavioral change that you need in order for you to feel better. “Would you please make time to respond at least twice during the day so I know you have read my messages?”
What’s important about the complaint process is that you engage in the healthy presentation of your feelings and needs. And you work together toward a resolution that works for both of you.
Moral superiority can’t survive in that context because you own your own feelings and make requests for change. Your focus is on behaviors you want to see changed, not on the other person.
- Be empathetic.
Empathy is essential to the success of a marriage. It involves respecting the other person so much that you care to understand what that person is feeling.The effort to understand means you have to ask questions, listen with intention to learn, and validate the feelings expressed.
Empathy and contempt can’t co-exist. So, if you truly want to stop feeling contempt toward your spouse, open your heart. Make room for your spouse and all that s/he needs and feels. Be kind to your heart’s guests. Seek to understand and validate what you have been condemning.
It’s difficult to imagine that two people who once had a common vision for love and life could become riven by contempt. But this hateful destroyer becomes the insidious outcome if spouses don’t own their own feelings, their own stories, and their own roles in communication.
If you have allowed your relationship to get this far, you may feel hopeless to effect a turnaround. But you can still learn how to stop feeling contempt toward your spouse.
And, if you can connect to your memories of happiness, you can still get that loving feeling back.