Contempt: Is there a Cure?


This week I received an unexpected note from a reader who found a post on Terrance Real’s website that I’d guest-blogged in January 2008.  Given her sincere gratitude for finding the article and its relevance for combating the contempt she’d experienced in her daily life, I thought I’d re-post it here.

CONTEMPT: My search for a cure for this relationship killer

By Donna Blethen, Guest Blogger

Donna Blethen is a licensed California marriage and family therapist specializing in individual, couples and family therapy practicing in San Francisco and Pacifica since 1978. For more info, visit

When I was training with John Gottman, I enjoyed his theory of the Sound Relationship House and his description of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of relationships”. He called one of the Four Horsemen, “Contempt”.

He also said there was no antidote for contempt in a relationship.

Indeed, I thought, more often than not there is some form of contempt in most relationships: One or the other partner feels superior or better-than the other. Yet, I didn’t quite believe there was not antidote.

I was not satisfied.

I bought Terry Real’s book I Don’t Want to Talk About It for a girlfriend — a mom in my playgroup of nine year olds at the time. At our playgroup Friday gatherings, she often complained that the line, “I don’t want to talk about it” was her husband’s frequent response and that it drove her crazy. I put Terry’s book on the shelf without giving it to her, thinking I was being presumptuous. Then, on a cold rainy day some months later, I pulled it off the shelf, and I began reading it.

I was spellbound.

Every man in my life is in that book. Terry so clearly describes, with gripping storytelling, the wounding legacy of our patriarchal culture for men and the women who love them. Our culture lands men or male-identified women (a.k.a. the progeny of the feminist movement) into emotionally walled-off, achievement-oriented, grandiose places — or if they fail to make the cut, they are doomed to become shame-based failures. Either way, our cultural imperative is a relational lose-lose.

I personally resonated with the truths in that book. Never before had they been so clearly described. I wept for my father, my brothers, past lovers, my husband. Contempt and grandiosity is the main theme throughout this book, but, for the first time in our profession, Terry dealt with it straight-on.

I began to feel hopeful.

His second book, How Do I Get Through to You?, takes on the women involved with grandiose, contemptuous men (or if the roles are reversed, the men involved with those women), and teaches how a loved one can break through that wall of “better-than”.

I found a pathway in Terry’s stories and experiences, and I wanted more. As I read his books, I saw many references to Pia Mellody. She was part of his recovery work. I began to read everything I could of hers. Then, I found out that Terry was conducting a workshop in Napa, CA. I went to it, and not only did I gain tremendous personal insights, but I decided I wanted to begin professional training with Terry to learn how to apply Relational Life Therapy (RLT) to better counsel my clients and help them achieve healthy relationships.

That was seven years ago.

As a result of my training with Pia and Terry, I have gained a systematic, easy to understand, step-by-step pathway to help couples and families understand what thinking and behavior trips them up relationally. If they are serious about change and healing, with RLT they can learn to love and understand themselves and their partner, as well as learn to identify self-defeating behaviors and employ healthy alternatives.

RLT also provides normalizing insights like: the Three Stages of Coupledom (the Honeymoon, the Raw Deal, and the Real Deal), and that all relationships are constantly shifting between harmony, disharmony and repair.  Fundamentally, RLT is based on the idea that relational skills are teachable and learnable.

RLT has been a boon to my personal life and my professional life. I teach it, and I live it.

The couples I treat love the clarity. The “less-than” person in the relationship loves the support because they get someone (me, the therapist) who is on their side to call their “better-than” mate down from his/her overtly toxic high horse. Believe it or not, the grandiose, “better-than” mate likes it too because RLT does not assume that the “less-than” partner is all that innocent in the equation. Instead, this person has work to do to clean up their own passive toxic behavior.

No one is innocent in these powerful couple dynamics, they are just playing out immature relational behaviors that were usually modeled as they were growing up. I find that most people are hungry for the connection that Relational Life Therapy teaches.

Finally, there is a cure for the relationship killer we know as contempt.