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.

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.

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.