Is Contempt Hurting Your Marriage Intimacy?

by Gina Parris

The photo below may seem to have nothing to do with marriage. But it can give us a glimpse into something important.

Have you ever been pulled over for speeding? I have.

I am not Sarah Silverman though, so I could not get away with her contemptuous response to the officer.

Haha! Contempt!

Most of us would not speak with contempt to a police officer when we are pulled over, (unless we have some uncanny ache to be on cop-show TV.) Why do we speak with respect even though we are angry at being pulled over? Because we know doing otherwise could cost us something.

But what if certain actions and attitudes cost us our marriage intimacy?

According to Dr. John Gottman in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert one of the key predictors of whether a marriage will survive or not – is how couples handle conflict.

Many couples want a steamy satisfying sex life, but they don’t realize that the way they handle conflicts is costing them such sexual intimacy and passion.

During a conflict, do you speak to your spouse with contempt and criticism?  If you do so regularly, they will cost you your marriage. But first, that contempt will cost you an affectionate and passionate sex life.

There are “four horsemen of the apocalypse” as Gottman calls them, whose presence can predict the end of a relationship. They usually come rearing their ugly heads in this order:

1. Criticism

2. Contempt

3. Defensiveness

4. Stonewalling

Criticism is when you take a normal complaint: (“I’m angry that you didn’t sweep the floor last night. We agreed that we’d take turns doing it.”)  And turns it into character assassination and blame:

Ie: “Why are you so forgetful? I hate having to always sweep the kitchen floor when it’s your turn. You just don’t care.”

Contempt then, piles on the negative energy.

Contempt adds cynicism, sarcasm; perhaps name calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt- the worst of the four horsemen- is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message you’re disgusted with him or her.

Interestingly, Gottman points out that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer infectious illnesses such as colds, flu and so on, than other people. Your whole immune system suffers. Contempt grows when conflicts are not resolved. Unresolved conflict causes negative feelings to stew and fester into contempt.

Not only is it difficult to resolve conflict when you feel disgust from your mate, it’s almost impossible to feel sexually attracted to that person.

If low sex drive is hurting your relationship, than I encourage you to see if criticism and contempt are playing a role.

If you are the criticizer, own up. Become aware of your destructive words and apologize for any specific encounter you remember. And then, focus on what you can be grateful for in your spouse.

If you are the recipient, of criticism and contempt, than you already know it. You may feel like you are emotionally abused. Still, it’s important to realize that all of us teach people how to treat us.

During an unheated time, you might want to say something like,

“Listen, I want us to be intimate and I want to be sexually desirous of you. However my body literally shuts down when I feel verbally attacked and it’s not resolved. I’d like to move past this together.”

Then you can open up dialogue and move forward. Please keep a heart of forgiveness open however. You don’t need to open up the last 20 arguments and pile them into a conversation-gone-bad. If you really are haunted by multiplied angry sentences, than write them all down and practice the tapping technique in The Sexy Marriage Solution to take the emotional charge out of them.

During a conflict, refuse to lower yourself to the level of sarcasm and contempt.  It’s tempting to meet contempt with contempt as an emotional guard.

Instead, hold a vision of yourself as the kind of mate you want to be.

Hold a vision that sees the best of your mate as well, not the worst.

If you and your spouse have memories of passion and friendship with each other, and a commitment to each other, than anything is possible.  Focus on the good memories. Focus on creating gratitude towards your mate, for all that is admirable and praiseworthy.

You don’t have to stay stuck in the destruction of criticism and contempt. You can turn it around and rekindle the love.


Gina Parris is an international speaker, performance coach, wife, mother of four, and a champion for the Sexy Marriage. She is dedicated to helping people heal their sexual and relational issues. Throughout the past 28 years, Gina has served on staff of several large churches and encouraged thousands of people -privately, in groups, through television, radio and other media. She also speaks to organizations on topics dealing with home and work balance. Gina combines the best of Sports Psychology, Energy Therapy and Biblical promises to help people enjoy a Love Life marked by victory.

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