The number one relationship killer

Many problems in relationships can be solved with only a small amount of awareness and action. Things such as jealousy, lack of trust or arguments (all topics I have covered on this website previously; please check the archives) are either self-imposed psychological defects or temporary blips in an otherwise fulfilling relationship.

There is one facet in a relationship that once fully developed is very hard to overcome though. It is the main cause for the breakdown of relationships of several years or more and is also very subtle in its evolvement.

The number one relationship killer that I am referring to is… Contempt!

Why contempt is so detrimental to a relationship:

Contempt in a relationship is the feeling of overwhelming disdain towards your partner or simply the setup of the relationship itself. It is the act of belittling or putting your partner on a lower level either verbally or through sub-communications. It is obviously most noticeable when contempt is on a conscious level, as witnessed in controlling relationships, although it occurs on a subconscious level more frequently than you would think.

Most adulterous behaviour, including all forms of cheating transpires due to contempt, or to put it another way, a lack of care or respect for the relationship. Instances like this can easily fall under the subconscious category, which is why something like cheating is often tricky to cognise.

Contempt is beyond the dynamic of an offensive/defensive relationship setup; a concept that I will explain shortly. Basically, without constantly addressing the needs of a relationship, contempt WILL slowly appear and grow given enough time and familiarity. It is imperative that couples know where it stems from and how to prevent it beforehand.

A published study on these findings:

I have recently been studying the work of John Gottman, a highly respected marital counsellor. John Gottman devised a system that can predict with high accuracy whether a couple will remain together in excess of four years, simply by carefully analysing very short footage of the couple interacting with each other.

What his system analyses is subtle communication nuances and expressions that go beyond the sort of things people would typically look for: he refers to these as micro-expressions.

This system actually goes some way to explaining where social-psychology intuition comes from. For some time now, a number of fellow relationship coaches and I have been fascinated by the way we can instinctively analyse and predict how fulfilling certain relationships are almost instantly. John Gottman’s system works in much the same way as our experienced intuition does.

Guess what expressions the system predominantly focuses on… How much CONTEMPT is being conveyed by each partner!

How to spot contempt:

Aside from micro-expressions or experienced intuition, there are a number of behaviour patterns that contribute to the overall feeling of contempt. One to look out for is if your partner is becoming overly patronising (comic situations aside) or condescending. Another example is if your partner’s respect for you seems to be waning. This could be in the form of how enthusiastic they seem to be towards doing decorous things for the relationship and for you. Another significant example is how keen they are to listen to you talking about everyday topics.

One important point to note is that there is a difference between contempt for a relationship and contempt for life in general. The latter is beyond the scope of this article but if your partner’s apparent contempt appears to expand to all areas of their life, such as starting to neglect health and appearance or work commitments, then it is likely that there are more depressing issues involved.

How contempt develops:

There are several types of behaviour that contribute towards the development of contempt and some are a lot more noticeable and poignant than others.

A partner showing signs of defensiveness, belligerence or being evasive and distant (often referred to as stonewalling) are all examples of factors that can lead to contempt, but by far the biggest catalyst for this behaviour is criticism!

Criticism differs from contempt in that it is a dynamic form of communication rather than a passive form: criticism is as much about the person who is feeling criticised as it is about the person dishing out criticism!

What this means is that received criticism can either be used as feedback on how you are acting and advice to learn from, or it can be immediately labelled as negative and contemptuous. Criticism is often done with the best intentions and although it is not the best way to communicate with a loved one, it does actually show you care.

Having said that, it is difficult to appreciate any underlying sentiments from a partner who is constantly criticising you, especially if the criticism is delivered with any visible angst or condemnation. Second to this, if there are no repercussions for their behaviour, it is like giving permission to this person to act in that way. This is how criticism can develop into contempt over time.

How to prevent contempt developing:

As soon as you start becoming aware of some of the causes of contempt listed above, start to address them. As stated above, criticism is one of the big factors as it almost always leads to contempt if it is not handled properly.

There are a number of phrasal and behavioural techniques that allow you to contradict your partner, remain decisive and opinionated whilst still showing full support. Empathy is one of the most important feelings to adopt into a relationship to combat criticism.

No one wants to feel contempt. If you are open about these topics and willing to calmly and maturely discuss them together, you can very easily avoid the number one relationship killer. 🙂

Much love,


6 replies
  1. Prime Lady
    Prime Lady says:

    This is all very interesting Sam and the bottom line is having respect and empathy for your partner as you say and listening to how they are feeling. Sometimes when we are in a long term relationship we need to reflect on that and remember not to take them for granted or become complacent.

    There are often hidden reasons why someone is behaving like that and one could be they are already cheating on you or wanting to maybe get out of the relationship. I think that sometimes when you feel a relationship is over it can create contempt for it but not make you actually leave.

    This article is good. It is reminding people that they have to put effort into relationships and in long term relationships we can become complacent and take it for granted that we don’t have to make that effort.

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:


      You make some very valuable points, my favourite of which is at the end where you talk about couples having to make an effort to keep their relationship fulfilling. Complacency is another common route to contempt so I’m glad you highlighted that.

      It’s true that if both people in the relationship make this effort and are aware of all the triggers mentioned then it reduces the risk of any contempt forming in the first place.

      The ending to my article might seem a little vague to some people so I hope everyone reads what you have added.

      Thank you,


  2. Elena
    Elena says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. You really made some great points. I never really thought about the different ways contempt disguises itself. Sometimes, that’s all a person has known in their life. Contempt and mistrust go hand in hand. Also, contempt is a direct result of pain. I think in order for a relationship to truly succeed, both parties need to be communicative with one another and optimistic to the idea of true love. There are alot of cynics in the world and I’ve always said that I’ve never met a cynic who hasn’t been hurt.

    There are some good types of criticism, but the ones that exist in a relationship can be destructive because usually the criticism is about a person’s characteristics not a situation that both people in the relationship can learn from. I think faith and trust are the two things that can make a relationship flourish. With both in the relationship keeping an open mind and open heart, anything is possible.

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:

      Hi Elena,

      Thanks a lot; you’ve added some great points. You’ve really got me thinking about how much of these sorts of behaviours and feelings are inherited, or developed through relationships during childhood, such as family life.

      You’re right about how cynical relationships can never work. Unfortunately these sorts of relationships are plastered all over our televisions, at least in the British soap-operas I’m currently thinking of! True love shouldn’t be something that is expected to be effortless and that is part of the problem.

      I agree when you say that contempt is related to pain, but it is not always external or visible pain, which is why it can be so hard to recognise. I think the best word to describe it all is ‘apathy’, which once again is an internal feeling and hard to recognise without positive communication, another quality you pointed out. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Elena,


  3. Hurting and Heartbroken
    Hurting and Heartbroken says:

    Your article helped me understand what contributed to the deterioration of my relationship. Is there a way for both partners to heal from the contempt that developed? Is a subordinate relationship okay while we are both trying to embrace and enrich each other?

    • Samuel McCrohan
      Samuel McCrohan says:


      The first step is recognising the contempt and both actively wanting to work at the relationship. How one-sided and also how intense the feelings of contempt are plays a part in how easy that process will be. You must both be prepared to put any past grievances behind you.

      A relationship in that transitional phase shouldn’t feel subordinate because it should always be as fulfilling as it can be at each moment in time. Once you have recognised the specific areas to work on (eliminating routine and monotony are common examples), the main thing to ensure is that the relationship is always mutually positive, the antithesis of contempt! 🙂

      Thanks for reading the articles and commenting,


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