How to Turn Contempt Into Compassion

4 min read

Clinicians have long known that contempt is a cancer in relationships. Empirical support for this salient clinical observation came from the work of John Gottman and others. Contempt communicates superiority, be it intellectual, emotional, moral, or financial. The contemptuous partner views problems in the relationship not in terms of interactions but in the deficient character of the partner.

Content is replete with projections based on cognitive biases, rather than fair descriptions of partners or behavior. Typically, the most virulent contempt is for qualities that contemptuous partners dislike about themselves. The selfish can’t stand selfish behavior, the critical can’t abide criticism, and the defensive condemn defensiveness in their partners.

Contempt breeds contempt. One partner typically has more of it but the other inevitably develops defensive contempt. Both partners feel powerless when it comes to improving the relationship.

The key to saving the relationship lies in changing the tacit judgments that fuel contempt. It’s a process of reframing each negative judgment with compassion. Compassionate reappraisal is not making excuses for bad behavior. Rather, it makes positive change possible. Think of your own experience. Are you likely to adopt more positive behavior when someone shows contempt or compassion for you?

The following examples are from several of my clients. A cardinal rule for overcoming contempt is to make eye contact when you talk and listen to each other. Eye contact humanizes your partner, making it harder to maintain contempt.

My partner is:

Contemptuous judgment: Overly emotional.
Compassionate reappraisal: I’m under-emotional (withholding positive regard). If I’m more emotionally generous, my partner won’t be overly emotional.

Contemptuous judgment: Too reserved.
Compassionate reappraisal: I’ve eroded her confidence with criticism and presumed superiority.

Contemptuous judgment: Too calculating.
Compassionate reappraisal: She tries to compensate for being sometimes too emotional and sometimes too reserved. (Calculation is a function of power imbalance in a relationship—one person has the ultimate say-so. When power is shared, calculation is unnecessary.)

Contemptuous judgment: Narcissistic.
Compassionate reappraisal: She feels she doesn’t matter to me, so she has to look out for her own interests. I can modify this with compassion.

Contemptuous judgment: Lacking self-confidence.
Compassionate reappraisal: He’s too often unheard and put down.

Contemptuous judgment: Opinionated.
Compassionate reappraisal: She takes a more extreme position when she’s invalidated and contradicted, as do I. I can modify this with compassion and attempts to reconcile our perspectives, rather than have one dominate.

Contemptuous judgment: Hypersensitive.
Compassionate reappraisal: She reacts to my insensitivity.

Contemptuous judgment: A poor communicator.
Compassionate reappraisal: She’s used to being unheard and overruled, which makes her require adrenaline to be heard.

Contemptuous judgment: Close-minded.
Compassionate reappraisal: She feels our “discussions” are manipulative—trying to get her to do something. I can modify this by being more curious about her opinions and asking for more information about them.

Contemptuous judgment: Overly defensive.
Compassionate reappraisal: She feels attacked when we talk, due to the history of our interactions.

Contemptuous judgment: Mean-spirited.
Compassionate reappraisal: When she’s hurt, she lashes out. I don’t want her to be hurt.

Contemptuous judgment: Negative.
Compassionate reappraisal: She’s mildly depressed. I can help by having more positive regard for her and focusing on improvement rather than blame and criticism.

Contemptuous judgment: Too tense.
Compassionate reappraisal: I can try to lower the anxiety in the house by increasing compassion and appreciation.

Contemptuous judgment: Illogical.
Compassionate reappraisal: Emotions have their own logic (to protect well-being). Emotional and intellectual logic reconcile when partners work for each other’s well-being.

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Contemptuous judgment: Self-righteous.
Compassionate reappraisal: He can’t see my perspective if I don’t see his.

Contemptuous judgment: Prone to misinterpret attempts to communicate as personal attacks.
Compassionate reappraisal: She’s been personally attacked too much in our conversations. (Communication is an exchange of information. Attacks are explicit or implied expressions of superiority, devaluation, disrespect.) I can modify this by respectfully seeking her opinions, listening to them, and asking for or providing more information.

Notice that contemptuous judgments make both partners feel powerless. Appreciate which emotional state empowers you to improve and allows you to like yourself better: contempt or compassion for yourself and your partner.

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