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7 Dangerous Behaviors that Breed Contempt In a Marriage

Avoid them at all costs.

When people think of the behaviors that can upend a marriage, most tend to focus on the big-ticket items. Infidelity. Financial troubles. General assholery. While, yes, such issue can certainly obliterate the foundation of a marriage, there are many other small, seemingly minor behaviors that, over time, can leave a relationship feeling cold and hollow. Undermining or invalidating your partner, for instance. Or ignoring your partner in favor of your phone. Unattended, these can transform into termites that slowly gnaw away at the foundation partners have built.

One such feeling that always gets brought up is contempt. In a marriage, contempt is acting as though your partner is beneath you or not worth your time. It’s disregarding someone else’s thoughts and opinions or actively displaying scorn for them. Dr. John Gottman considers contempt to be the most dangerous of his “Four Horseman,” the quartet of communication styles that signify problems in a marriage. As summed up by The Gottman Institute, “contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, and it arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self.” Gottman describes contempt as far beyond criticism, as it indicates a moral superiority over one’s partner.

“Thoughts and feelings of contempt for our partners is utterly corrosive and, like rust, slowly but steadily eats away at any foundation of love that may have existed before,” says Dr. Gary Brown, a prominent couples therapist in Los Angeles with more than 25 years of experience. “In short, I see contempt as a form of emotional abuse.”

Contempt develops over the years. It manifests itself by such behaviors as sarcasm, eye-rolling, regular interruption, criticism, and regular impatience, and flourishes because frustration and conversational blockades that develop. The person displaying contempt certainly needs to do a lot of work on their communication — including discussing their feelings a bit more openly so they don’t simmer and become acid. But relationships are a two-way street and there are many regular behaviors that, if not put in check, can make one the target of contempt. Because contempt often arises when complaints get ignored or when one partner actually displays contempt without knowing it. Here are seven behaviors of which all husbands and wives should be mindful.

Regularly Ignoring Your Partner

Marriage is built on a foundation of good communication. Conversations are essential for getting on the same page as well as maintaining an emotional and intellectual connection. But when one partner regularly gets distracted or acts like they have better things to do while their partner is speaking, contempt can easily flourish. Phubbing, for instance, is a big modern marker of this: the act of mindlessly scrolling through one’s phone while someone else is speaking is becoming more and more of a martial hot spot. But, in general, couples need to listen to one another no matter how small or large the discussion. As Maria Sullivan, a relationship expert and vice president of dating.com explained to us, all of these behaviors signal to a partner that you don’t genuinely care about what they have to say. Done regularly, they can greatly harm a marriage.

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Not Minding Your Body Language

Body language speaks volumes in a relationship. And you might be sabotaging your relationships with an unconscious shrug, arm-cross, or a tilt of the chin. For instance: crossing your arms. This makes you feel closed off or unwilling to listen to what others are saying. As Alison Henderson, a certified non-verbal behavior expert in Movement Pattern Analysis, said it can speak volumes. “The perception is the important part,” says Henderson. “They may think that a gesture is harmless because they don’t mean anything by it, but it’s how it’s perceived that becomes the issue.” According to Sullivan: “Listening to [your spouse] or speaking your mind with crossed arms might send the message you are hiding something or that you have your guard up,” says Sullivan. “This can make your partner feel like you aren’t connecting.” 

Forgetting to Embrace Intimacy

As life becomes more hectic, finding time for intimacy becomes much harder. It happens. But, that’s not an excuse. Small opportunities for intimacy — physical, emotional, intellectual —  present themselves every day. If, however, these opportunities are not seized upon or prioritized resent and contempt can flourish. “This can start arguments that can breed hostility,” Sullivan says, adding that it’s essential to carve out weekly intimate moments to encourage connection and cement the fact that you are, in fact, more than just roommates.

Forgetting Appreciation

At the beginning of a marriage, complimenting your spouse is second nature. But, as the years roll by, expressions of appreciation tend to drop off. This is, of course, not good. “Even though nothing might have changed for you, your lack of attention and appreciation will make them want to stop being affectionate back,” says Sullivan. “This can lead to a bad cycle of behaviors.” As Jonathan Robinson, a couple’s therapist and author of the new book More Love, Less Conflict: A Communication Playbook for Couples, told us, “the number one correlation with happiness in couples is the number of appreciations they give to each other.” In other words: Just letting your spouse know that he or she is appreciated and that their efforts aren’t going unnoticed can help them to feel validated and understood.

Becoming Complacent

The roommate phase is a real phenomenon. And few things can dull the fire of a marriage quicker than settling into a routine. If you find yourself falling into familiar patterns, it can breed boredom and disinterest, which can lead to other, more toxic, behaviors working their way into the marriage. “If your partner isn’t receptive to trying something different, like a class or exploring a new location, this can discourage partners from experiencing the joys that married life has to offer.” Complacency quickly leads to contempt.

Ignoring Communications

It’s hard to answer every text or call that comes in during the day. But if you’re consistently ignoring your partner’s requests for a quick update or connection, then you’re inviting problems. It’s okay to ignore a message if you’re unable to answer right away. It’s just a matter of not forgetting about it for several hours — or even ignoring all together. “If this continues, the party who is being ignored might begin to feel abandoned,” Sullivan says.

Being Too Needy

A partner who demands too much of it can also be asking for trouble. Being needy and clingy can be a drain on your partner’s emotions and ultimately lead to them giving you attention out of obligation as opposed to desire. Eventually they will start to look at your relationship as a job, one that they might be looking to quit. “Letting your partner grow separately from you is an important factor is personal fulfillment,” says Sullivan. “Remember, you are two individuals who are in love, not a packaged couple.”