March 1, 2024

So many unhealthy relationship dynamics are fueled by poor communication skills.

As a Harvard-trained psychologist who has spent 20 years working with couples, I’ve found that the most damaging way to communicate with your partner is with contempt.

Contempt is the belief that a person is beneath you, worthless, or deserving of scorn and ridicule. When someone feels contempt for their partner, they feel justified in humiliating, embarrassing, or hurting them.

One phrase that reflects contempt, and that I’ve seen destroy relationships the most, is: “I wish we’d never met.”

Here are some other phrases that contempt might show up in:

  • “You’ve ruined my life.”
  • “You’re a nuisance.”
  • “I don’t care about what you think or how you feel.”
  • “You’re pathetic.”
  • “You’re not worth my time.”
  • “You owe me. I’ve put up with you for years.”
  • “If we didn’t have kids, I would have left you by now.”
  • “You disgust me.”
  • “No one else would want you.” 

Contempt can also be communicated through non-verbal gestures, like dismissive body language or dramatic eye-rolls.

All of this serves to demean the other person and create a power discrepancy. It can ultimately ruin the foundation of a healthy romantic connection and lead to lower relationship satisfaction.

How to create healthier relationship dynamics

If you find that you feel some contempt for your partner, there are ways to fight it so that it doesn’t hurt your relationship:

  1. Pause. When you’re feeling triggered or emotionally upset, take a moment before you say anything. Choose your words carefully and aim to communicate with respect and kindness, not harm.
  2. Take responsibility. This includes acknowledging your choices, your patterns, and your engagement in dysfunction.
  3. Apologize. Sincerely say you’re sorry when you do something hurtful or mean-spirited.
  4. Learn to argue productively. You and your partner are a team. The goal is to communicate in ways that acknowledge your commitment, desire to connect, and mutual respect for one another.
  5. Tap into your love for your partner. When you want to criticize or change them, remember why you got together in the first place before giving constructive feedback.

The biggest piece of advice I give to people is to try to find gratitude. There is always something to be learned from discord in our relationships. Look for something positive that you can take away from every interaction, even if the process is unsettling. 

Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, is a board-certified psychologist and author of “Letting Go of Your Ex.” She specializes in love addition and breakups, and received her clinical training at Harvard Medical School. She has written almost 50 peer-reviewed journal articles and delivered more than 75 presentations on the psychology of relationships. Follow her on Instagram @DrCortneyWarren.

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