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.

The Pyramid and the Pool

In this time of cataclysm Martha Beck has a brilliant portrayal of the path through disaster.  This video is a clear depiction of the personal work that will change the world we live in. I hope, as you watch the video, you will find as much joy and hope as I did.

My husband showed me this on FB this am. Elizabeth Gilbert whom we have followed through Eat Pray Love, Committed and Big Magic sent us what appeared as an urgent request: Please see this. Please see this. Please see this.

We did.

I felt such joy!

There is hope!

All of you who are working on self awareness, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and connection, be affirmed, your personal growth is contributing to all of us. We are all connected!

Be well.

Have hope.

Love is the Divine Power.



Choose Joy

What would your life be like if you knew that your life purpose was to feel the emotion of joy?

What would you decide to think and feel and do differently if you intended joy as your focus?


When you are in joy, you are in alignment with Source, wanting to experience  expansion through you.

You are Source energy in the form of you are here to experience!

Be brave.

Care how you feel.

Go in the direction of your joy!

Choose better feeling thoughts.  They will  lead you toward joy,

You have the right to create a life of joy.

Your Choice.  Choose Joy!

The You-ness of YOU

In our competitive culture, our patriarchal culture, our left-brained culture we are all about comparison and competition. We have been sold on the belief, conscious or otherwise, that if we do not compete we will end up on the bottom of some imaginary heap. Or that someone will get the better……you name it: car, position in line, deal at the store, advance in career, innovative idea that earns millions of dollars and accolades that we dream will finally make us feel like enough.

It is a lie.

Your being enough is not a ticket to sit on the couch and play video games all day.

Your being enough is an alert to you that you are the only YOU on the planet.

Now bring the uniqueness of your “you-ness” to life and share it with the world.

What are your unique gifts, capacities, one of a kindnesses?  Are you great at putting together costumes? ( There was a “Hot Chocolate 15 K Run in Golden Gate Park today and one of the female runners ran in a tutu over her black leggings)

If you love to sing, let the birds and the shower and maybe five other people hear you sing.  Do not compare yourself to your idol. Learn from him or her, yes. But bring out your voice, your expression.

Are you a math whiz who loves crunching numbers? A hands on creator of some kind? Notice you. Notice what is wanted by your being. What gets you up in the morning.

Bring your “you-ness” out to play. Bring those ideas, personal expressions out of the clouds of the mind and put them into an active practice. Ground yourself through moving your body into the creative action of your dreams and desires made manifest.

Make a vision board. Tell a friend. Write yourself notes. Put you out there. Make you a contributing member of our world through your gifting us with your uniqueness. Give us a chance to share your uniqueness.

Tit for Tat

Tit for Tat sounds something like this.

“You are cranky,” I say.

“So are you,” he says.

(Both are hurting and complaining)


“Sweetheart, would you mind putting your dirty clothes in the laundry hamper at night. I hate tripping over them in the dark on the way to the bathroom when I have to pee in the middle of the night.”

When one has a complaint, no matter how deftly crafted: right words, even paced slowly, carefully, with the best guessed timing may be met by:

“Well, You……..”

Fill in the blanks.

Your mate feels like an oily duck. Nothing sticks. It all rolls off.

Infuriating! Your angry mind goes to labels, “Prick!” “Bitch!”

Irresponsible you think.

Most of us have a tendency to ward off complaints or criticism with a counter attack:  Tit for Tat, which is a serious relational problem.

Weakened with low self-esteem, tit for tat is a form of retaliation. It signals we are not feeling very good about ourselves or about the relationship.

The egoic thinking of self-preservation is running the show. We are usually in what I call our ‘survivor self’ when we retort like this. Our survivor self is a kid self with the maturity of about 6-18 years old that only cares about ourselves. In this state our thinking is more primitive, less mature. It correlates to a part of our brain that Stan Tatkin has coined the “Primitive”.

We think, “If I am being called on the carpet by you, I have the right to reply with an equal offense I have suffered at your hands.  I have a list that I’ve been stuffing away, thinking they were petty or offending or troublesome in some way. But if you are going to point out my mistakes, I get to point out yours.  Let’s at least level the playing field after all!


Take a few deep breaths.

Get some oxygen into the brain.

Look closely at this person.

Even look into their eyes.

Slow yourself down as you zip your lips.

Remember this is the person who fixed your dinner last night. Or took the splinter out of your foot this morning, or woke up and gave you a big hug and said I love you or scrambled to go grocery shopping between work and picking up the kids.

Then employ the humbling practice of apologizing.

Tit for Tat or Defensiveness, as shown above, is a moment of relational disharmony.

It breaks the connection.

We have to work this all the time.

Here is an example of my husband and I working Tit for Tat.  We’ve been married 29 years.  (You don’t have to be married that long to learn it. It just never goes away.)

We were both tired. We were looking for a park we had seen on-line to lay out our sleeping bag and nap.

As he drove past the park, I looked at the entrance and said, “There is no parking.”

He said, “Yes, there is.”

“I didn’t see any,” I said, trying to be gracious as a slight burn started in my belly at being summarily dismissed.

“You mean no empty spaces?” he asked?

I sensed the tension that just started to build. (We are energetic beings. Our emotions are felt even when we don’t speak them.  Especially between two people who have worked to stay tuned to each other as we have.)

“No.  No parking,” I said.

I had seen that the entrance to the park was a walk way not a drive way.

He turned the car around and drove into the Community Center Parking that I had not seen.

There was no park parking but there was community center parking.

As we entered, we had to go right or left to find a space.  On my right I only saw handicapped parking signs under the trees.  I pointed left to the open lot where there were many spaces out in the open sunlight.

“Yes, there is,” he said.

“Ok,” I said, derision and protest in my tone.

“I don’t like how you are talking,” he said.

“I think it is time for a nap,” I said.  “You will feel better after a nap.”

“It is not just, me you know,” he said.  “You need a nap too. You have been contradicting everything I’ve said.”

I have a choice right here.

Tit for tat:  “So have you.”


Apology:  “I am sorry.”

I choose, “I am sorry.”

I had to swallow my pride.

I find pride is so sticky. It is hard to swallow.  I took a long slow breath and swallowed.

“I am sorry I have seemed contradictory.” (I used his words. I acknowledged his perception was right for him. It didn’t matter if it matched mine. It was his experience of me that I wanted to repair. I couldn’t defend against that.  It is his. I could only be sorry that my actions had come across, to him, as contradictory. That is why defensiveness is useless.)

We are now parked.

I got out of the car.

In my mind I was thinking, “If he says anything but I am sorry too, I might not be able to keep the fighter in me muzzled.”

I came around the car to his side.

He was waiting for me there with his arms open to hug me.

“I am sorry too” he said.

Whew! We’d made it once again.

When Our Self Esteem Tanks

A silver-haired competent, creative man sat in my office with tears rolling down his cheeks.

His head bowed, his eyes closed, he shook his head “NO” as I offered him the mantra:

“I am precious and valuable.  I am enough.  I matter. Even if…”

His fingers clenched over his toned stomach.

“No?” I asked.

“No. I do not matter.”

“Ouch.” I said.

We sat and breathed together as I had taught him. In and out. In and out. Quiet. In and out. In and out. More Quiet.

“Lovingly accept that you do not feel like you matter.”
When we lovingly accept whatever feeling comes up, and breathe into it, it may well shift.

If we reason, analyze, counter that feeling, we will get blocked, resisted and land in a tug of war either within ourselves or between ourselves and another.
We sat and breathed.

I asked him when he had first experienced that he did not matter.
I invited him not to search for it, but the memory, time, experience come to him like a leaf on that river.

It came.

So did more tears.

He told me of his young four year old self being yanked up from his crying heap in the dirt, gripped by the arms and held eye-to-eye by his very disgusted-looking uncle and told to stop sniveling.

Breathe. Keep breathing. In and out.

“What does that little four year old need from you? How can you help him? What did he need back then? Imagine it and give it to him.”

As this grown man had the courage to go back in time and offer his little kid self the care and protection he needed in that moment, he shifted in his seat and visibly got taller, stronger, more integrated.

He wiped his eyes, blew his nose.

“Congratulations! You just proved to yourself you do matter.”

He opened his eyes with a shy smile said, “I guess I do.”

Managing Self Esteem

A long time ago my teacher, Pia Mellody, taught me a mantra I want to share.

“I am precious and valuable. I am enough and I matter. Even if…”

As shown in the stellar research work,“Daring Greatly” by  Brene Brown, all of us suffer from the fear of not being enough.  I used to think it was my private plaguing thought.  A cruel task master that had me constantly, anxiously, striving.  I would do something as innocent as baking a cake, enjoy a few moments of satisfaction and then my demon voice would point out the flaws.  Nothing was safe from her critical eye, especially around high-stake issues like where to live, who to marry, which job to persue.  From childhood to adulthood this voice ran my brain.

But through Pia and Brene I learned that we are greater than our thoughts, our feelings or our actions.  That it is actually my job to control my brain.  Just because thoughts come into my brain does not make them valid.

Over the years I’ve learned of four ego fears we all share:

  1.  I am not enough.
  2. There is not enough.
  3. I will be rejected.
  4. I have to control and dominate to be safe.

If we do not manage our egoic brain, we may easily and effortlessly let one or more of these fears run our lives.

But with “I am enough,” as an active internal mantra, I learned that I could direct my brain into better thinking. That thinking helped my mind and body relax. Instead of losing energy criticizing myself, I could invigorate myself.  I did not have to take things personally. I could breathe more easily.

It was a major step in managing my self esteem.

Try it.

You will like it.

You will feel better.

Your life will get better.

You too are precious and valuable. You too are enough and you matter.

Even if…..

The Power of Breath

Of the number of things I do not like, and am constantly working on, is the agitated surge of negative or critical or judgmental thoughts that can grab hold of my mouth and pollute the air around me, soiling the relational connection of the person I am with.

When that burn fires up my belly and rises toward my gullet, I have to take action or suffer the consequences.   I will definitely have emotional/relational clean-up work to do.

I have been working on breathing through those surges while actively telling my mind, “Do not listen to this charged litany.”  My body is in distress and needs my full attention. It is contracting and constricting my vital life energy. It is time to bring back the breath of life to my body, which needs the loving care of focused breathing: four breaths in, four breaths out.

My left brain thinks I am under attack.  That fighting words are the way out.  I have to stop. A big stop hand. Nope. You don’t get my attention. My body does.

Amazingly, when I use focused breathing, my body relaxes and the tenor of my thoughts shifts. A sigh escapes my lips.

I dodge a potential moment of damage, just by breathing.

Try it . It works.

Kicking and Screaming into Surrender 2:


I am working on trusting the universe. It came in the form of my family. First there was grief for missing fresh powder skiing on New Year’s Day when the slopes are sparkly white and lightly peppered with colorful bobbing beings due to the majority of snow bums sleeping off their New Year’s Eve hangovers.  BUT, my husband eased my distress by suggesting a vision board date with our son and his wife.

Vision Board-1

A vision board is a pictorial representation of what one would like to manifest in the coming year. New Year’s Day was the only day M & L could join us. Voila! A precious date with three of my favorite people, (well, 3 ¾ people: L is 37 weeks pregnant today!)

We gathered magazines, scissors, glue, glitter, ribbons and poster boards. We had an event. The day dawned crispy cold, our bird bath frozen over. The ocean stretched blue as far as the eye could see. I breathed into the pleasure of life showing up on life’s terms and relaxed into it.  We called in the creations of 2016.

Last year, embedded in M’s vision board, was “planting seeds.” No baby on either of their boards but that desire was definitely made manifest! Wishing you a “Sweet 16!”