Criticism and Contempt

"Inner Struggle" by Mimi Stuart

John Gottman, who wrote Why Marriages Succeed or Fail after studying 2000 married couples over two decades, found that contempt, criticism, and defensiveness ultimately lead to divorce. Does that mean we shouldn’t say anything when we have a complaint? No. The key is to make specific requests with a neutral tone of voice, instead of making broad negative judgments, such as “you’re always complaining.” You can state specific needs or feelings without exaggerating the facts.

Specific Requests versus negative judgment

Here are a few examples of how to change a negative judgment into a constructive request. Note that the most important part of the message is tone of voice and facial expressions.

E.g., Negative criticism: “You never help me with the dishes.”

Specific request: “It would be great if you’d help me do the dishes tonight.”

E.g., Negative criticism: “I hate it when you leave me hanging. You’re selfish and you care more about your friends than me.”

Specific request: “I felt worried and then angry when I expected you at 7 and didn’t hear from you until 9. Would you call me if you’re going to be late in the future?”

E.g., Negative criticism: “We never go out.”

Specific request: “I’d like to go out more. Hey, let’s go dancing Friday night.”


Contempt expresses the feeling of dislike toward somebody, and implies that the other person is considered worthless and undeserving of respect. Contempt is conveyed through insults, name-calling, tone of voice, as well as facial expressions. Contempt eats away at a relationship rapidly and painfully. A study has shown that people who make sour facial expressions when their spouses talk are likely to be separated within four years (Gottman, 1994). In an atmosphere of contempt, partners find it difficult to remember one positive quality of their partners. Conflict escalates and prevents meaningful communication.

Ways to show one’s contempt

1. Insults and name-calling are the most conspicuous and crude—you’re ugly, a jerk, a wimp, etc.

2. Hostile humor covers contempt with a thin veil of comic relief, often followed by the excuse, “I was just trying to be funny.” E.g., “Her cooking’s so bad she can’t even boil water.”

3. Mockery is a subtle put-down, where the spouse’s words or actions are ridiculed to show he or she is not worthy of respect or trust. A man may tell his wife, for example, “I really do care about you,” and she replies sarcastically, “Oh sure, you really do care about me.”

4. Body language, such as rolling one’s eyes or sneering, gives the clearest clue that a couple is in trouble.

5. Tone of voice is probably the most powerful weapon of contempt.

Responses to contempt

What if you have a partner who is harshly critical or contemptuous toward you?

1. Don’t be drawn into contempt, criticism or defensiveness. You can stand up for yourself, but without joining in the sneering, ridiculing, and hostile negative judgments.

2. Require an attitude of mutual respect as a foundation for any discussion. In a court of law, the procedural rules must be followed before the merits of the case can be heard. In relationship, the procedural rules require that both sides listen to the other person’s feelings and opinions respectfully. If the other person persists in showing contempt, suggest having a discussion in the presence of a counselor or mediator.

With an attitude of respect, people can discuss any difficult issues—sexuality, separation, weight problems, and money problems, for example. Without respect, you can’t discuss how to set the table without being inflammatory.

3. The most difficult but transformative course of action is to become aware of how we unknowingly feed the external critic (our partner), and thus participate in the cycle of contempt and criticism. We all have an inner critic–the voice in our head that monitors our behavior. It prevents us from yelling in a movie theater or showing up at work three hours late. Yet, there’s a point where the inner critic no longer helps us but taunts and persecutes us without mercy. In some cases, the inner critic can completely block a person and cause despair. The inner critic is also what allows us to accept certain criticism regardless of its exaggeration or the scornful attitude in which it’s delivered.


Each person is usually vulnerable to specific types of criticism, probably because of childhood experiences or excessive criticism received in specific areas while growing up. The inner critic becomes excessively harsh in these areas in order to catch the person making “mistakes” before someone on the outside does. Criticism in these areas is experienced very painfully, and is either accepted without question or defended against adamantly. Thus, it turns out that our own inner critic becomes an ally of the external critic.

Inner Critic

The most effective way of dealing with repeated criticism from the outside is to deal with these parts of our inner critic that are over zealous. We must become aware of the inner critic while it’s at work, and then attempt to moderate its over zealous attitude with reality. The external critic then loses its collaborator in us, making the affront less potent.

So we need to transform our harsh inner critic into an objective, helpful guide who’s on our side. We do this by correcting harsh inner statements. For instance, right after thinking to oneself, “I’m an idiot for saying that!”, we change the message to something like “I’m not an idiot. I will just try to think a moment longer before I speak next time.”

Example: Rudeness

Imagine a woman was brought up to value courtesy and to dislike rudeness. Her inner critic watches her behavior to make sure that she is friendly and nice. When her husband or children say, “you’re being mean” or “that’s rude”, she feels ashamed and hurt or becomes very defensive. If she had no hook in her—that is, no inner critic who’s easily offended by rudeness—her response would be less heated and intense. Without a strong hook, she might answer without anger or sarcasm, “That’s right, sometimes I am mean.” Or “I call it ‘being direct’, not rude.” Without a hook luring in certain criticisms, defensiveness loses its heat. As a result, the criticisms dissipate.

Example: Laziness

Imagine a man who has a strong inner critic about being lazy. Whenever he relaxes, there’s a voice in his head that says, “You’re lazy and good-for-nothing.” Suppose he’s on the couch reading a magazine, and hears his partner ask, “What are you doing?” That might be enough to activate his inner critic and make him sneer, “What’s wrong with relaxing once in a while?!” On the other hand, if he became aware of his excessive sensitivity due to his inner critic’s relentlessness, he might say without guilt or anger, “Just relaxing” or “I’m reading a great article.

Modifying the inner critic

Contempt is similar to criticism, although it’s stronger in that it implies general worthlessness and inferiority. We need to become aware of how we participate in receiving contempt. It is our own inner hook that allows us to accept a scornful “you’re pathetic” or a tone of voice that says as much. Once we’ve modified our inner critic to improve our lives instead of humiliating and hindering us, then we might respond to contempt with a calm but poignant, “Excuse me? Why are you talking to me that way?”

It is not easy to become aware of the unconscious voices in our heads. Yet, it is exciting to think that through such awareness we can develop more choices in our lives— the choice of how we respond to our inner critic as well as the choice of how to respond to others’ criticism of us.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

* * *
Read “I’m shocked how much I criticize my dad for not standing up for himself.”

Read “I feel so critical of my partner.”

Recommended books:
Gottman, John, Ph.D. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Stone, Hal, Ph.D., and Stone, Sidra, Ph.D. (1993). Embracing Your Inner Critic, HarperCollins Publisher, New York.

13 Responses to Criticism and Contempt

  1. Tracy says:

    I have contempt and criticism issues from my mother. She can be absolutely fine 90% of the time and then BAM! Out of nowhere she gets nasty. It’s actually getting worse as time goes by. She asked my opinion on something and I asked a clarifying question. She got snotty, mean and rolled her eyes. She makes many comments about how other people are critical, backbiting, tempermental and “snotty”, but doesn’t see her own behavior. Very frustrating.

    • Alison says:

      That’s so sad. Is she apologetic after becoming nasty? You could try saying something, such as “Please don’t say such negative things and roll your eyes. You’re better than that and more enjoyable to be with when not saying unkind things about others.” Or you could just give her positive feedback when she’s pleasant, and then excuse yourself when she is mean or critical. Over time, she’ll learn that her nastiness doesn’t serve her well. Thank goodness she’s nice 90% of the time.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have a serious issue with contempt in my relationship. My partner is incredibly contemptuous on a regular basis. I have pointed it out to him countless times & he will not admit or recognize his behavior. I have sent him a slew of articles & information regarding relationships & these types of behaviors & their effect on relationships. He is also often rude, has a bad attitude, is moody, mocking, makes faces, uses a contemptuous tone, rolls his eyes. This leads to constant arguing & fighting. There is a complete lack of communication as the more I want to talk, the more he runs away & the more angry I become. It is a vicious cycle of destructive behavior.

    • Alison says:

      Hi. In all compassion, I ask you why you are staying with him. Is your life better because of him? Are you afraid of taking the steps to free yourself from your emotional bonds (and other bonds) that tie you together.

      I’m sorry to say, but if you have talked to him many times about the fact that he treats you with contempt and given him articles about the topic, and he will not admit or recognize his behavior, apologize and try to change, then your relationship as well as your self-esteem, and your children’s self-worth (if you have children) will only deteriorate. There is no question about that.

      Most couples have issues to deal with. But relationships can only improve if both people want to make it better and try hard to improve the relationship. Moreover, if a relationship is not good, then it will get worse and worse. The longer you stay in a relationship with someone who treats you with contempt, the worse you will feel about yourself, and the harder it will be to leave. So time is of the essence.

      There is no question from reading your paragraph above that you can best find value, joy, and meaning in your life only by distancing yourself from such negativity and hostility. Just make sure to protect yourself physically, financially and emotionally as best you can, and then take the steps to get away from your partner who treats you so poorly. I have known many people in this predicament, because it comes on gradually, and after a period of time away from their partner who treated them poorly, their feelings of self-worth and confidence do return. They usually can’t believe that they put up with so much negativity. The first steps are the hardest.

      Good luck and please let me know how it goes.


  3. Liz says:

    I find your articles insightful. I am living with a woman for 3 months; she is immature, drinks too much and acts like a Don Juan in public; she French kisses other women “friends” in front of me; kisses acquaintances on the lips and rubs men’s thighs. I tell her the behavior is unacceptable – pls modify it out of respect fore – she says it is in my head and I am jealous. I am not jealous – she does what she wants – I just want my partner to honor our relationship in public. Heck my straight friends tell me they wouldn’t put up with this behavior from their boyfriend – so why do I put up with it from a woman? Good question. I’d rather be single. I tired of her bs…

    • Alison says:

      It doesn’t matter if this kind of behavior is from a man or a woman, same or opposite sex, it shows lack of respect for you and lack of self-respect. However, you will not be able to change her behavior. you can become angry and controlling, and she still will not change, but then you would feel even worse, being angry and controlling. She’s free to be the way she is, and someone else might be fine with it. So, I will ask you the same question you asked, “why do you put up with?” If you’d rather be single, what are you afraid of?

  4. Robin says:

    It may be that your ex felt exhausted by past drama. If so, that could explain why he became unwilling to be pulled in by “accidents”, whether real or self-inflicted, that he didn’t have any empathy left. You say you need someone who can take your side no matter how unreasonable or how alienating it is to his friends, who will always be there for you no matter what. That type of blind loyalty is available. You can get a dog.

  5. Chrissy says:

    This article about the inner critic has provoked a question about a past experience and how I could have handled it better.
    I play sports with my husband, but my skill is limited. One day I looked on his computer for an address and time for an appointment. I was shocked to find a message bcc from the coach to another player about wishing “someone else would take the hint about stepping back to let more skilled players join the team”. My inner critic read betrayal, screamed that my husband should acquaint me with the “internal memos”, should have stood up to the coach saying that the coach should direct messages to the player, not to the husband of a player. I found this message wrong on so many levels and for the 2 weeks before the tournament, I waited for my husband to speak to me about it. At the tournament when the coach gave the necessary rope to hang myself, I was beside myself with rage, could not see anything but betrayal on all sides and committed team suicide by speaking to the coach in front of the team by paraphrasing his own words ” that he was correct that I was not the kind of team player that he needed, so he could mold me into what he needed. And as far as his idea of friendship and loyalty, I wanted no part of it.” All in attendance would have told you that I swore at him and shot his dog, but no one knew that I had the letter in my hand. When asked why I did it and I answered, about the letter, I was informed that coaches had so much responsibility that it was an acceptable practice. My husband asked for a divorce. He said that he believed everyone received that letter, that it was no big deal. That I had assumed in error that I was being put down, that I should have just backed off. We didn’t separate then, but the corrosion to my status in my mind and his was mortaly wounded. I tried putting it behind me, but his refusal to accept any responsibility, culpability by the coach or willingness to speak further about the situation or event left me feeling distrusted, devalued, anxious, shamed, and offended. The final act of betrayal came a year later and was his failure to come and see about my well being after an early morning car accident that required ambulances, police and fire department. His excuse, “I would have had to miss a day’s work.” Three years later, he maintains that “he wasn’t the one who crashed my vehicle.” Therefore, he is absolved of any need to apologize for his lack of empathy or support, and he won’t even back up and say, “I wasn’t aware that it was a big deal. If I had known I would have come.” As you may have already perceived, I have been unable to lay this to rest, unable to walk away, unable to move on. I have not been able to distance myself from this man, I love him and after years of therapy, still continue to throw myself under this bus accident of a relationship. Wishing I could open my mind up and ripped those pages of memories, the good with the bad and shred them, so I could give myself a fresh start. Why did I write this, am I still looking for validation, someone to tell me they would have done the same thing….maybe a court ordered restraining order from associating or even thinking about him might be needed. Thank you for this space to write on.

    • Sutara Ling says:

      Dear Chrissy, I want to reply to you bcos I am touched by your plight, dilemma & expression.
      That all sounds a bit horrific & where you ask for some validation or resonance I see that there is none..[well as far as I can tell].
      I felt apprehensive just reading about your experience of betrayal, how you came to know that content, how sharing that intimacy with your Husband didn’t happen till later and even further that the issue was brought up in a public arena.
      Some of the content is hard to follow-did you shoot the coaches’s dog?
      What’s apparent is how angry the situation ‘made’ you feel, and finding ways to to deal with that anger appropriately were clearly beyond you at that point.

      I could definitely have been boiling mad in response to a perceived betryal, & I wud have definitely have wanted a heads up on the hidden convos & agendas, I go after ‘transparency’ like a woman on a mission!!!

      I hope you have found you way forward & experience some resolution or peace in regard t this past experience, warmly, Sutara.

    • Alison says:

      I’m sorry I never replied to your email. That was an oversight that I just caught because another reader replied to you. I hope that you are doing better. What has happened in the past 2.5 years?
      All the best.

    • arezu says:

      Wow.. I just read this and I feel your pain. Having been in a very similar situation myself. How are you now. . it is hell to live in such pain …

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