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.

61 Responses to Criticism and Contempt

  1. Angel Constant says:

    My husband is just really rude. He is angry 95% of the time and I am walking on eggshells trying not to piss him off. 80% of the time I ignore his eye rolling, condescending and rude statements, and yelling. Then there is 15% of the time when I will speak up for myself and try to get him to see my point of view and why I chose to handle a particular situation like I did. But during those interactions, he yells, and screams and tries to intimidate me. And then there is 5% of the time where I will just go toe to toe with the yelling and screaming and we end up walking out on each other. I have honestly just ran out of things to do. At this point I have a 14 year old who sees me getting screamed at and tells me things like “I would never make a plate of food for him because he is so rude” or “I don’t know how you deal/manage him” and then I have a 2 year old son that sometimes displays the same loud and obnoxious outbursts like his father. I just don’t know what to do! We have recently purchased a house and we have been married for 12 years (separated for 2 of those years partly because of his outbursts) and I just don’t know how to get him to see that he needs to change. I have no other complaints about him except his attitude. I don’t wake up every day angry. I hate arguing. I grew up in an environment where that was the norm and I hated it. So I mostly live my current life trying not to make him upset to avoid arguments. To give some examples…

    This morning at 6am, he screams out “Where is the coffee” My groggy response because I hadn’t gotten up yet, “I forgot to pick it up yesterday at the store” His response as he storms down stairs and slaps his leg “I should have just gone to the store my damn self” and slams doors and cabinets down stairs. Then later on around 8am. He calls me and says immediately before a hello or hi “why didn’t you call me on your way to work” My response, “I figured you were angry at me for not buying the coffee” His response “Why would I be angry” ….”well because you yelled and stormed off and slammed cabinets so that is why I assumed you were” His response…”You know I’m not a morning person” my response “does that make it ok?” He then changes the subject to finances. Long story short, he was upset with me about letting him know what bills we have coming up in 3 weeks and told me I just need to let him know on the weeks that they are due. He cursed me out saying that my thought process was dumb. Then I try to just stop the argument and wish him well for the day and that insinuates that I am trying to have the last word and I run the relationship. NOOOOOOO, I just simply don’t want to argue!

    He has to tell me how to cook, how to hang a picture, how to wear my clothes, what clothes to wear, how to comb my hair, how to dress our son, how to park the car. I’m just so tired of the arguments and the controlling nature he has.

    After re-reading this it seems like I should just throw in the towel. But, I just can’t see throwing in the towel because he has poor communication skills.

    • Alison says:

      Sorry about the delay in responding to you. I am out of town. I will have to respond more fully next Wednesday. In short, if he is not willing to go to serious counseling or nonviolent communication classes, he will destroy the relationship and the self-respect of the rest of the family.
      I know it’s painful, but in the long-term it will be much more painful to stay with him unless he makes some serious changes.

      • Angel says:

        Thank you for even responding! My husband and I hadn’t argued since last week, I’m just curious to see how long we go before we are back at each other’s throat. I texted him a long message that day of the argument letting him know that I can’t determine how long my love will last for him living this way. I asked what was it about me that made him so angry all the time? What things can I do to help keep him calm? I could see that he read the texts, but he never responded and we never spoke about it. We just continued on as if nothing happened. So as previously stated, I just want to see how long we will go without an argument. I will check back in soon! Thank you again for taking time to read my note 🙂

        • Alison says:

          That’s good to hear, though I think that some serious counseling is needed. It sounds as though it is extremely difficult for him to speak about his feelings, needs and desires. Therefore, when he feels frustrated or that he’s had enough, he lashes out. It’s so much healthier to be able to speak calmly about issues before they become a big deal. Counseling or therapy could help him. But if he doesn’t go, counseling or therapy for you could help you learn how to respond and how to communicate with him. Yet, it normally takes two to make a relationship work.

          It seems as though texting him in the way you did without attacking him was pretty effective for the time being. Maybe you could text him something nice like, it’s been really nice to not argue over the past week. I hope this can continue. If you have something you want to talk to me about, please do it before you get upset. Maybe we can handle things before they get really aggravating. If you want you can text me. (Or whatever language would be appropriate between the two of you.)

          Good luck. Let me know how it goes.


  2. Julie says:

    It has gotten to the point where I have been rude and contemptuous lately, and I’m not making excuses for my part in that. Reading your response makes me feel terrible about the way I’ve handled my emotions. However, I want to clarify a few things: I’m not insisting that we absolutely must get married. I have never given him an ultimatum. I believe in finding common ground when it comes to relationship issues and I also believe in being open and honest and not withholding my feelings about things that are important to me. I’m not trying to bully him into marriage. If this is an argument where my stance is I want to get married and his position is that he’s not ready. Then, isn’t there some kind of middle ground where we both win? I’m not even looking for a 50/50 compromise. We could never have a wedding and I could be satisfied. Any empathy or understanding or any tiny amount of commitment in his comfort zone would be fine but yeah, I suppose I assumed moving in together was a symbol of commitment or moving our relationship in a particular direction. This whole thing began with me putting his feelings first and trying to join him in ignoring my own needs. And it didn’t begin with me being angry or rude at all. I was respectful and understanding. So much so that I put his feelings first and attempted to change how I felt and what I believe about what’s important to me. But those feelings remained unresolved and as much as I’d like to sweep them under the rug permanently, I still need some future talk, any microscopic amount that he’s okay with, for me to feel safe and secure. I should be as much a part of this equation as he is, but I don’t feel that we’ve handled the discussion in that way.

    In regards to the trip, I was offered the same job in October for 6 months, and I turned it down and explained to my boyfriend that I don’t believe in long distance relationships. While I know it may work for some people, I have tried it in the past with the best intentions and failed, so those bad experiences have taught me to not want to go down that road. I’m “out of sight, out of mind” as far as that goes, so it’s not that I’m threatening him by taking the job. But if he’s not committed and there is essentially no future in this relationship and he isn’t making any effort, then I’m just making what seems like the best decision for me selfishly, rather than what’s best for us as a couple/partnership/team. I’m a forward thinker, and I do things with the future in mind.

    I never understood why women in their 30s were in such a hurry to get married and have babies but now I get it. My sister has 2 kids, my boyfriend’s brother is about to have his 4th child. Every other day I see announcements on Facebook about engagements and weddings and babies. It’s difficult for me to ignore what feels like a primal instinct to build a nest. I’ve even seen friends give their now-husbands ultimatums. They tell me now their husbands now thank them for giving them a push.

    That being said, I don’t think the real important thing for me is a wedding or a ring or official ceremony (but not gonna lie, I have girly fantasies about looking cute in a white dress). It’s more of the promise and peace and security that matters to me. As I mentioned in my original post, I come from a distant family. I talk to my father on the phone maybe once or twice a year and he lives on another continent. So I’m sure I have some needy daddy issues that give these emotions their urgency. Also during the time I first brought this up, I had recently been screwed over with a work thing. Someone had stolen the trademark and patented something I created and invested years of my time and thousands of my dollars. I had been in and out of depression and anxiety and betrayal about my professional life. I turned to my live-in boyfriend in hopes that he could be my rock. At least if there was a family in my future, I could deal with the blow to my career. Instead, I put my feelings aside to cater to him and they all got mixed up with my other crisis, hormones, childhood drama and created a potent blend of contempt. Again, it’s not about the outcome (wedding or no wedding). It’s more about the feelings associated with that and the need to have them validated.

    So how do I go about having my feelings validated? Is that just too much to expect out of a relationship? Or just let the whole thing go and move on with my life?

    • Alison says:

      Hi J,

      I am just going to go through your letter and quickly respond to various comments you make.

      I don’t mean to make you feel terrible, but just to point out the inevitable consequences of showing contempt and arguing when your boyfriend doesn’t respond the way you want him to, because it is not too late to change your ways and to salvage the relationship.

      I’m not against ultimatums (ultimata?) if they’re given the right way, without coercion. For instance, “I’m not interested in being with someone who is not interested and delighted to marry me. I love you, but I’m going to back off from our relationship, while you are finding out who you are, and leave room for me to meet someone who is interested in developing a committed relationship and having children.” You don’t need to give an ultimatum. But I suggest not living with him, not showing contempt, and basically not always being there, in order for him to need to consider whether he wants to marry you. If you’re living with him and arguing and expressing great desire to get married, there is no room for him to develop desire for you and take things to the next level.

      There may or may not be a middle ground with your boyfriend. However, you are more likely to find a middle ground or even all of what you want, if you don’t seem so determined to want to marry him despite his ambivalence. I think it’s fine to have marriage as a goal, but when marriage to a particular person who is not as gung ho as you to marry is your goal, you become less desirable to him, and it is less likely to become his goal.

      You say “This whole thing began with me putting his feelings first and trying to join him in ignoring my own needs.” Yes, I believe it. It is very important to take care of your important needs first. It is not selfish in fact. When you cater to your boyfriend at the expense of your own needs, it becomes a burden to him! There is an unspoken deal that when you give up your needs, you expect the other person to reciprocate. That is a burden and diminishes desire. When you ignore your own needs, you become resentful, which feels horrible and is unappealing to others. You might search my blog for a couple of articles on “resentful” “needy” and “differentiation” and “pursuer.”

      You say “I had been in and out of depression and anxiety and betrayal about my professional life. I turned to my live-in boyfriend in hopes that he could be my rock.” This is an unfair burden to put on your boyfriend. I would definitely go to a professional to get the help you need. That is a gift not only to yourself but to your boyfriend.

      Unfortunately, you need to become your own rock. The more you need to depend on someone else for emotional support, the more anxious and uncomfortable that other person will become about their relationship with you, unless they are the type who need to be needed, and therefore also like to be in control, which is also a recipe for unhappiness. If you want to be desired and loved, then avoid increasing your dependency on someone for emotional support. It’s a bit of a paradox in that the less you need someone, the more comfortable they will be being there for you in times of need.

      The same paradox holds true for needing validation. Here are a couple of articles on validation, which might give you some things to think about. Needing to be validated actually diminishes true intimacy and increases anxiety in a relationship.


      and this one I think might be helpful:

      Again, I would recommend the book I recommended my last response to you: “Why men marry bitches” despite it’s misleading title.

      Good luck.


    • Kimberly says:

      Dear Julie, I just read your blog and was very comforted by things you said. Your transparency and honesty is appreciated, and meaningful. I understand how you feel with regards to wanting more from your relationship (a firm commitment of marriage), and the resulting
      depression from being betrayed in your profession. The two are parallel. I am experiencing similar disappointments, including daddy issues you mentioned. I am depressed as a result, but at least don’t feel alone in my thoughts after reading your blog. I think we’re going to find strength and resolve pull through this stronger and with more self -respect.
      Once we realize we are worthy of respect and consideration we won’t tolerate anything less. Thank you for your post. It is more helpful than you might realize. All the Best.

      • Alison says:

        Thank you for your comment.
        All the best.

        • Julie says:

          Thanks Alison and Kimberly for your comments. It’s really nice to hear that my story was able to bring some comfort to someone else.

          An update on my situation: I read the book “Why Men Marry Bitches” and while I found a lot of it very entertaining and empowering, it also sounded like a bunch of manipulation techniques and that was really hard for me to get behind.

          As I’m preparing to leave the country, my relationship with my boyfriend has gotten so much better because I’ve been so preoccupied with work. The marriage thing seems insignificant to me all of a sudden because I know I’m going to miss home and my boyfriend. It’s funny how leaving home can make you appreciate all the little things in your daily life.

          Thanks again for sharing your perspectives. I really appreciate it!

          • Alison says:

            Thank you for the update. Well, the book I recommended isn’t for everyone, and can sound manipulative the way it’s written because it is for people who don’t automatically respond this way but tend to pursue and push for what they want, which backfires. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember thinking that ideally a person would not fall into a lopsided relationship and thus would not have to “resist” answering the phone or pretend to be busy, because she would already be busy. So I take your point, but I still think it’s a good book to see how to actually act in a more balanced relationship.

            I’m glad your relationship has gotten better, which makes sense because you are so preoccupied with work and are getting ready to leave the country. Good luck and thanks again for the update. It’s rare and nice to hear back after some time goes by.


  3. Julie says:

    I’ve been experiencing a lot of contempt in my relationship too. My boyfriend and I have been together for 2 years, we’re both in our 30s and have been living together since September. Our relationship is great the majority of the time, but a couple months into our lease, I told him that I wanted our relationship to progress and I want to get married one day and didn’t want to just assume he was on the same page. His response was that he wasn’t ready to get married because he wanted to do all these other things with his life and he had to hit all these milestones with his career and finances and emotional stability, etc. And I understood so I dropped it but I brought it up again a few weeks later and I shared with him that my career was important to me too, but my real legacy in life would ultimately be the people who love me and my family. I’m actually quite distant from my family so I told him how much it meant to me to have my own family. He told me that if I wanted to get married so bad, then I should just leave. I felt like maybe he was feeling pressured so I backed off, but it keeps coming back up every few weeks because I don’t feel the issue gets resolved ever, but ends with me giving up on what matters to me. I’ve pleaded with him to do something that addresses my feelings rather than ignore them and then go about business as usual. I’ve told him that we don’t have to get married immediately but at least I need him to paint me a picture. Where will we be in 5 years ? Am I even in the picture ? His response is “I don’t know” and sometimes he says he wants to get married one day and sometimes he is insistent on not being ready and “what’s wrong with not being ready”. So I drop it and eventually fly off the handle about something insignificant and can always trace it back to feeling rejected. The fairytale is long gone, and even if we ever did get married one day, it would feel like a pity marriage or something. And I’m angry that my feelings are being ignored. Now it’s gotten to the point where I feel disgusted with him and it shows. I say things like “are you being mean or are you stupid ?” and I’m angry and his response now is just to give me the same generic reply “I love you and I’m sorry” as if that will show me he’s listening to the content of my emotions. Sometimes he actually says “I do want to marry you” The more he tries to sweep things under the rug, the more angry I am. Even when I drop it and we go back to being normal, resentment boils over again at some point. Now I’m being contracted to leave the country for 4 months for work (an optional job offer that would enhance my career) and I told him that I wouldn’t even take this job if there was a ring on my finger , but now I am leaving and I need him to bring up some discussion about our future so I know he’s serious and not just trying to get out of hot water, and I need to know if I should trust this relationship to resume when I get home. A couple weeks ago I told him at this point, he has said both extremes of “if you want to get married so bad, then you should leave” and “I do want to marry you” so I don’t really know what to believe. And what I need from him is to bring up some discussion about our future. I gave examples and I said “we don’t have to set a date and it doesn’t have to be official but maybe ask me what kind of wedding I want, or what kind of ring I want or let’s casually fantasise about where we’d want to live one day” and he promised he would bring it up starting tomorrow. Two weeks later after I waited patiently for him to say something, I finally blew up at him and told him I don’t even want to marry him anymore. I caught him in a lie about something else as well and i was just all bitter and contemptuous and I don’t know what to do now or if this is even salvageable. I leave town in a month and I’ll be gone til September. Any advice would be appreciated !

    • Alison says:

      You need to read the book “Why Men Marry Bitches.” It is excellent despite the title (it is not in any way about being a bitch.) Please get it and read it.

      You say you are tired of having your feelings ignored. I’m sorry to tell you, but I think you are ignoring your boyfriend’s feelings and you are not respecting your own desires. In fact, you are acting in such a way as to sabotage your own desires. By showing contempt, and using manipulation to try to get him to make a commitment, you are actually showing a lack of self-respect. Don’t desire to marry someone who is not wanting to marry you. And don’t be angry at him for it. But also, don’t live with him.

      There is no need to wreck your relationship because he is not ready to marry you. But you certainly shouldn’t be living together if you’re not on the same page, and you certainly should not badger him and blow up at him. You need to be respectful and have dignity. Bring the best to your relationship. Do not make threats. But take action, not to punish him, but to respect your own desires to have a long-term committed relationship that is MUTUAL. It may become mutual with this particular boyfriend, but NOT if you live with him and badger him!!

      Go on your four-month trip, come back and don’t move in together. See him less often–and don’t see him every time he calls. But when you get together bring your best self to the date. Live a more multifaceted life. You should go on the four-month trip for the experience, not to punish him for not wanting to marry you right now. This kind of manipulation and guilt will not make for a good marriage, even if you get married.

      Taking these four months apart gives you an opportunity to develop your sense of self a bit more. Read about more psychology, the pursuer/distancer dynamic, and the book I mentioned above. Coerced marriage is doomed to misery. I respect your desire to get married. But the way to have a marriage that will be happy and mutual is by strengthening your self-respect, your ability to communicate needs and desires respectfully and effectively, and avoid becoming desperate or needy. One of the most important things in a good relationship is to avoid trying to control another person, and also to be able to set your own boundaries (for example, don’t live with someone who isn’t ready to get married to you, if getting married soon is important for you. But be respectful about it.) Read some of my articles by searching “pursuer” and also “needy” and also “effective communication” or “nonviolent communication.”

      Given that you’ve shown contempt and been rude to him lately, I would apologize, and leave on good terms.

      Good luck. Enjoy your trip. Let me know how it goes.


  4. Isabel says:

    Hi Alison! I’ve been researching Gottman’s methods and came across your page and am extremely grateful to have done so. I’m wondering if you could offer me a bit of advice.

    My boyfriend and I have been together for 2 years. He’s 25 and I’m 24. During that time we have broken up numerous times, usually over impulsive reasons. I harbored a lot of resentment towards him because he was the one always doing the breaking up, but I recently came into some clarity and decided to let that resentment go. We both love one another very much and used to have a lot of problems, many of them related to our mutual drug and alcohol abuse (which has since been mostly rectified). I’ve been trying to find ways to maintain the love and positivity in our relationship but I’m faltering.

    His only issue with me, according to him, is my tendency to pick fights. I realize that is in line with being critical and seeing how damaging it can be, I have made great strides in improving this. However, it seems now I’m not able to express and kind of upset without him being extremely upset. Recently, he was out of town and told me he’d call me in an hour, when he got back to his hotel room. He didn’t call until 8 hours after he said he would. His excuse? He had passed out drunk in his hotel room and forgot to call. Naturally, I was furious. We spoke on the phone and I admit I was snarky towards him but never called him a name or attacked him directly. When I did bring up that I was upset, however, he went into full-on defense mode and started bringing up times I’ve been drunk. I tried to diffuse the situation by saying we could end the conversation and pick it up again later, but he completely stonewalled me until about an hour later when I was finally so frustrated at his lack of responsiveness that I hung up on him.

    Stonewalling is another one of his very unhealthy behaviors. He’ll often make digs at me that are meant to be joking, but hurt my feelings. Earlier today I remembered the ‘soften startup’ tactic and tried to express to him that it didn’t make me feel good. His response? ‘I’m not doing anything’, and then silence. This led me to try to fill the silence which eventually led to more criticism on my part. I’m afraid he’s going to ignore me again tomorrow when all I want is for him to be kind and loving.

    Is there any way to get him to WANT to change these behaviors? He often thinks I’m overreacting and doesn’t realize how damaging these actions can be. I feel a bit hopeless. I want a good relationship with him and I know it isn’t easy, but I also don’t want to be the only one making an effort. It should be noted that when things are GOOD between us, he is a very sweet, kind, loving and attentive boyfriend. But when I express any negative feeling, no matter the delivery, he acts like I don’t exist.

    Any help would be appreciated!

    • Alison says:

      Hi L,

      Yes, I do have advice. It’s the same type of advice I would give to parents when their children ignore them or act out or forget to call. Don’t argue. Instead have a consequence. With a boyfriend or girlfriend, the type of consequence would be different though than with a child.

      For instance, if he forgets to call you, I would not be all that excited about spending time with him or talking to him. I would make other plans with other people. He will then become more anxious about getting hold of you in the future.

      When you do talk to him about the event, make sure you are not upset, and say calmly, “Hey, I was worried about you. I wish you would have called.” Then leave it at that and cool your energy toward him without being cold. In other words, seek out other activities and friends until he is mutually desirous of seeing you and calling you.

      I think that when someone is rude to you, whether they have an excuse or not, and being drunk is not a great excuse, it’s good to create a little distance. But do so without being punishing and mean. Why hound someone who has been rude? They will simply become defensive and attack you, which may lead to a fight, in which case you will regret your being angry and demanding. Suddenly you’re the problem. Your critical demeanor will show him that you are emotionally dependent on him, and that he can treat you poorly and you will still be there. It will also cause him to want to spend some time apart because you are being demanding.

      You might search my blog for articles on the Pursuer/ Distancer dynamic using the word “Pursuer.” I’ll be coming out with a book on the topic in a couple of months. I also recommend “Why men love Bitches” or “Why men marry bitches,” even though I’m not crazy about the title.

      Basically you can’t change his stonewalling and rude behavior. However, you can learn to express yourself more neutrally–I recommend getting CDs from Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on “nonviolent communication” and you can see brief descriptions of it on my blog as well. But most important is that you stop chasing him and criticizing him, but after you express your desires neutrally and briefly, you should try backing away so that he will have time and space to think about your desires and to develop desire for you again too.

      If you’re always there trying to improve him, you become a nuisance and he will stonewall and be defensive. If you remain calm, saying whatever it is you wish in the briefest simplest terms without attacking him, and then spend time away from him, he might won’t see you as the enemy. In fact, it’s not always necessary to say what you think, though sometimes it is. Often actions speak more loudly than words.


  5. Christina says:

    Hi Alison,

    I came across this article on Facebook about the thing that kills most marriages and I am surprised that I am doing it. We are in a 3 year old marriage, we have a 3 year old kid and to give a little background: it was a shotgun wedding. Nevertheless, we were able to work it out. But I don’t understand why I always see the bad in everything that he does. It’s like I’m always mad him. For me, I don’t see anything that he’d done good. Example: He arranged the groceries when we got home. He placed them cans on shelves. But never did I appreciate it. Instead, I questioned why he placed it here why he removed this there why he didn’t do this. Why haven’t he thought of even fixing this? I am about to flare out in disappointment for all those little “incorrect” things he did. Also, there is not a single day when I didn’t get mad at him. I am disappointed by the things that I thought of doing but he don’t. And yes, I always have that negative tone , rolling eyes every single time. I am an over achiever and he’s not. I want to achieve more in life but he’s just there sitting contentedly. So when we have discussions over “intellectual” things, I always make sure that I win the argument because I see him as a stupid, incompetent guy who knew nothing but to play computer games. Why is this happening to me 🙁 knowing how to fix myself would outweigh the cons of losing my marriage and my family. I am willing to change.

    • Alison says:

      Hi C,

      The good news is that you are recognizing what you are doing. Make no mistake, this behavior will destroy your marriage, but it may be reversible still. It’s a cycle that perpetuates itself. The more you see and point out the negative in your husband, roll your eyes, win arguments (rather than have effective discussions), the less self-empowered he feels, the less energy he has, and the more incompetent and meek he’ll feel and be around you. You will risk losing him to someone who does see the good in him, and even if he is very faithful to you and doesn’t eventually want to leave the marriage, you will want to leave him after several more years of this negative dynamic.

      So, to answer your question, why are you that way? Probably because you have the ability to see how things could be better, in other words, you are self-critical, which is healthy to a certain degree. But your criticism extends now to other people in your orbit. Part of it may be being a mother of a three-year old. If you are spending a lot of your time working and/or parenting, the sexy, vital, fun part of yourself has probably gone dormant. As a result, some inner frustration and resentment may be released onto a safe target–your husband, who handles criticism without attacking back (for the time being.) I would recommend trying to do some more enjoyable things alone and together even if you have to fake enjoying yourself and your husband until you get used to it.

      If you want to have a decent marriage, you absolutely have to stop criticizing him and showing him contempt. You are not only disabling him emotionally, but you are hurting yourself by harming your relationship. You obviously don’t feel good about it. That’s why you wrote.

      By the way, the fact that he is more relaxed than you are is fine. The only way he will become more ambitious is if he doesn’t feel like polarizing against your pushing him to do more. On the other hand, you did say this was a shot-gun wedding. Maybe you weren’t meant to be together. But whether or not you stay together, this is an opportunity for you (and for the benefit of your child) to gain dignity and respect within the relationship.

      You might read a couple of my articles on “differentiation,” “polarizing,” “criticizing,” “giving advice,” “great marriage,” “respect” and “effective communication”. You can search for articles by typing any of those keywords in the search box on blog page. Also you might check out some of my videos, which show tone of voice, etc. Here are a couple that may be relevant:
      1. Seven Keys to a fantastic relationship
      2. How to get your partner to help
      3. How to express your anger effectively

      It is terrific that you are young and becoming self-aware and are willing to change. That is the key!

      I really like Dr. Marshall Rosenberg and Dr. Gottman as well as Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone. Also cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective.

      Good luck.


      • Christina says:

        Thank you Alison for your reply. I appreciate it. I love my husband, I mean, we were married primarily because of the baby but we’ve been in a lovely relationship before that. It’s true, however, that things change when you start living under the same roof. I sometimes think, that maybe, we are not meant for each other. But I cannot imagine how life would turn out if we did end up separating. My husband is a kind man, he loves our son so much and I can feel that he really loves me. He is always sweet, he is always concerned for my feelings and in every fight that we had, he’s always the one who reaches out first to say sorry even if it’s my fault.

        It’s just that, as I age.. (I just turned 25, and he’s only 23), my preferences begin to change. The music we both love before, the hobbies we both enjoy before, I don’t like them anymore.
        I want to improve, I want to reach my goals (even as a young mom), because I hope that by doing so, I can also improve our lives as a family. And that is something I also expect from him because he is the “father” and the “man” in the family. But that is not happening. That is the main reason why I’m starting to hate him and to talk to him with contempt.

        The only way he will become more ambitious is if he doesn’t feel like polarizing against your pushing him to do more. — Does this mean that I have to stop be dominant, achievement-wise?

        I will read the links. Again, thank you so much.

        • Alison says:

          Hi C,

          I found an article I wrote a long time ago right on topic: “Motivating Change: ‘I can’t stop criticizing my partner.'”

          Well, I’m glad that you do see your husband’s good points and that he is such a kind, loving man.

          As to your last question, you do not need to become less ambitious for yourself if that’s how you would like to be. Yet you, your husband and your relationship would be better off if you stopped trying to push him to do more by criticizing him. You can have a respectful conversation where you ask him about his goals and the steps he plans to take workwise and about what he would like to do. The problem is that if you start acting like a scolding or disappointed parent, he will act more and more like a rebellious or incapable child. You do not want that dynamic in your relationship. You’ll feel lousy and he won’t ever step up to being the man he’s capable of being.

          Ironically, you need to be a little more independent and simply love him for who he is, in order for him to blossom. You can be honest with him, but do so from a loving stance of equality not superiority.

          If he is not working, but simply playing video games, and you are supporting the family, then you will need to have a serious conversation without putting him on the defensive. I also think that if he is truly not contributing that you should remain financially independent as much as you can and without doing so in a way to punish him.

          So, in summary, find a way to talk to him that does not put him on the defensive. In other words, don’t criticize, but rather talk about your feelings and desires, without talking too much or making him feel bad. If he seems to have absolutely no ambition, you will still want to avoid showing contempt and criticism. Over time, you will decide whether you can live with him and appreciate him for his kindness, or whether you cannot. And if you cannot live with him over the long term, you, he, and your son will all be much better off if you continue to show respect to each other. In other words, contempt will only harm your relationship and his self-esteem, as well as your child’s, whether or not you stay together. Respect and learning to discuss and listen will improve your relationship, although only time and effort will tell whether that will be enough for you two to stay together.

          All the best.



        • Alison says:

          I’m editing a book I’m putting together and found one more article that may be helpful for you: “I’ve fallen out of love with her.” I think the more you understand relationship dynamics and yourself, the better you’ll be able to handle your situation.

          Best of luck!

  6. Shawna says:

    Hi Alison, I have become concerned about my husband beginning to copy my facial expressions back at me when he has just told me something, and not in a bad way, I’m just sort of goofy that way…and I do things like…”whaaaaaat” that he will mock back to me. I have always done it I think. We have been married 38 years and he has always been a very good husband and nice to me all these years. But on Feb. 7, 2015 he was just treating me in an unusual manner and tone, so, I just straight up ask him what was going on? If he was having an affair; etc. and found out that he was using Porn. I found 27 open pages on his phone that day because he tried to tell me it wasn’t a big deal and that they were only pics but in fact they were 30 min. videos. Pryor to this he had been using the term “Clyde” to address me for a couple of years. Also, for a few years anytime we went anywhere he would get into the vehicle and crank it before he would unlock the passenger side so that I could get in, no matter if it was freezing or pouring down rain. He would just let me stand there. I let those things slide until I found out about the Porn and him lying about it (because he had said a few things to me that had made me know he was doing it anyway but always said he wasn’t). Anyway it landed us in therapy, which I thought turned out to be a joke for 3 months. All the stuff that I had kept in during our married life just came out of me like an exploding volcano and I held absolutely nothing back. 38 years of resentments that had built up. He said he was sorry, that he didn’t want anything to happen to our marriage, blah, blah, and blah. Now all of a sudden this is occurring and I don’t know how to take it or how I should handle it. Oh, and by the way, I feel as though I am getting mixed messages, he holds my hand all the time, being really sweet, doing whatever I need. I am so confused. Thank you for allowing me to ask you for your thoughts.

    • Alison says:


      Thank you for your question and I’m sorry for the contempt you have been dealing with in your marriage.

      Your husband’s mocking is a demonstration for the contempt he holds for you for putting up with his extremely disrespectful behavior toward you. Sadly, you have not demonstrated boundaries, such as leaving to get a taxi the first time he doesn’t let you in the car, and moving out or telling him to move out when you discover the porn. No amount of therapy will improve his behavior unless you have enough self-respect to take real action when he treats you so poorly.

      Please don’t take this as a reprimand, as you have enough negativity aimed at you. The hand holding and sweetness he still shows you because he doesn’t want to lose you does not diminish the extreme contempt shown in leaving you out in the rain or cold, and watching porn videos and lying about it, not to speak of the lack of self-respect wasting time on porn instead of improving his life and his relationship with you.

      Your eruption of volcanic resentment should demonstrate to you that you need to speak up and take action much sooner every time there is inappropriate or contemptuous behavior that affects you. He will respect you more, you will be able to express yourself in an empowered way rather than exploding, and you will feel better emotionally and physically, if you speak up or better yet, take action sooner. If it’s a minor mocking incident, speak up and then leave the room. If it’s a bigger incident, consider moving out or at least leaving for a day.

      If I were you, I would tell him that you don’t appreciate his mocking, and I would consider taking time away from him.

      Let me know what happens. Good luck.


      • Shawna says:

        Wow, Alison…I didn’t expect such a response, Thank you. I guess I think I am totally at fault and suspected someone might tell me at some point. I have been reading some of your articles since I found your site and I have to say that since beginning to try and help/heal myself…even though I didn’t quite understand everything this article was pointing out…I have found that you seem to have a better understanding of a lot of situations than what I have come across this past year. Thanks again.

        • Alison says:

          I really appreciate the positive feedback for my articles. Thank you. I would recommend that you read the ones on resentment and on setting boundaries.

          I’m amazed that you would think it is your fault.

          Perhaps you can turn things around by expecting more from your husband and much better behavior all the time, but I really worry about the patterns of contempt already being too ingrained. I also worry about the fact that he was/is? addicted to porn. If he is still being consumed with porn, I would definitely advise leaving despite the 38 years you’ve been together. At a minimum, start imagining and working toward a more independent and flourishing lifestyle, where you don’t risk being left out in the rain.

          Best, Alison

  7. Laurel says:

    This is so well written, it really helps to illustrate what went wrong in my relationship. It was so subtle. I felt so confused. I also really really appreciate the section about inner critic, I know I did that a lot. Something to work on before I start dating again. Thank you.

    • Alison says:

      Dear L,

      I really appreciate your taking the time to make this comment. Thank you.

      I’m sorry for the unhappiness you must have experienced being with someone who treated you with contempt. But that’s wonderful that you are able to improve your life and relationships now.

      You might look into cognitive behavioral psychology and voice dialogue. Both have a lot to say about how modify a strong inner critic. Remember it’s good to have a reasonable inner critic, but not one that’s harsh and harmful and allows others to attack you.

      You can also work on yourself while in relationships with friends and starting to date. The trick is not to go too quickly where you get emotionally attached before you really get to know someone. Space out dates and meetings with people so you can think about whether that person contributes to you wellbeing and vitality or is taking away from it. When you take relationships (including friendships) slowly, you can have time to think about how you might have reacted as too apologetic or too meek and accommodating, and how you might tweak your responses next time you meet. The real challenge is practicing not taking the blame or the critic’s bate, and you can best learn to do so in small ways with acquaintances and friends.

      All the best.


  8. aces says:

    I found your article whole googling tone of voice relationships contempt.
    A recent study at USC came out and showed that a research team developed an Algorithm Predicts Relationship Success.
    Basically, over 5 years of studying couples based on their words and tone of voice, tone of voice was the overwhelming predictor of relationship success or failure.
    Contempt and a dismissive tone of voice kill relationships.
    I honestly don’t think counseling can help anything when things have reached that point.

    • Alison says:

      I believe it! Tone of voice and facial expressions! I think someone can change if highly motivated. But it is rare, and it’s hard to do with whom you’re already in a negative pattern. But if the negativity is just starting to creep into the relationship and both parties are highly motivated, there’s hope–I hope! Once you get to ongoing contempt, it’s very difficult to change.


      • aces says:

        Hi Alison, yes you’re right.
        If it’s just starting to rear its ugly head that one can hope to salvage things.
        But in an established relationship where it’s gone on for far too long, best to cut and run.
        And yes of course I am speaking from (newly realized) experience.
        My soon to be ex bf of 5 years would say nice things but in the snarkiest manner at times.
        His behavior helped me unravel things and he told me yesterday that he doesn’t like me.
        So onward and upward.

        • Alison says:

          Live and learn. And it’s nice that you didn’t spend 20 years together. Hopefully at some time you can remember the good times together. But you sure don’t want to stay with someone who doesn’t like you (or would even say that with seriousness) and speaks to you with contempt. Even when a couple is angry and fighting, there should be an awareness that each wants the best for the other and loves the other.
          Sadly your bf may have been raised in a household where that kind of communication was common. That doesn’t mean that you have to put up with it though.

          Good luck and enjoy the future.

  9. AJ says:

    Dear Alison,
    I am having this issue with my husband. He speaks to me with contempt quite often, as if I am the enemy. Even over benign topics. I am trying desperately to get him to see that his tone matters. Sometimes hell just say, “Maybe this is just who I am” which is unfair. The way he speaks to me (not name calling – it’s very disguised) makes me feel stupid, childish and unloved. I think he has triggers from his abusive childhood, being raised in a home with no women etc. I must be doing something to trigger him. I’m just at a loss. It’s beginning to take a toll on me and our relationship. I feel like I’m becoming depressed and totally disconnected. I don’t look at him like a protective figure in my life. I’m building walls to protect myself. Sometimes I have to gear up to have a conversation about a topic I’m not sure he’ll respond well to. It’s exhausting, sad and lonely living this way. I would so appreciate any advice you might have. Thank you.

    • Alison says:


      I’m sorry to hear this. And I’m sorry to say that it will only get worse unless both of you (and the key here is “both”) are motivated to change this dynamic. You’ve probably read the statistics that relationships in which there is less than 80% positive interaction to 20% negative interaction (which means disrespect, not disagreement) will disintegrate over time. The higher that percentage of disrespect, contempt or indifference is, the more rapidly the relationship will disintegrate into misery and break up.

      Good counseling can help. But your husband has to be willing to go and make the effort to change his tone of voice and attitude toward you. Perhaps you could go together to a John Gottman weekend seminar or find some seminar based on Gottman’s work, maybe online, and see if his willingness to make an effort changes.

      What worries me is that you are feeling depressed and disconnected. That is not good, and will tend to be more difficult to extricate yourself from as these feelings deepen and become more entrenched. I would at least try to get counseling for yourself, as well as keep all connections with outside positive family members and friends and activities. Without a wider network of positive people and activities, you can lose your sense of self.

      My hope is that you could go to good counseling together. If not, go on your own. There is always something to learn about oneself. Perhaps you are triggering him in some way, but I would not take the blame for his negative treatment of you. Yet perhaps you can learn to express yourself or behave in a more self-empowered and respectful way. Perhaps write him a letter to let him know how serious you feel about the negativity in your relationship and ask that he go to counseling with you. It’s critical that you continue to engage with a positive support group (friends) and pursue activities that vitalize your spirit. If you stay strong and objective, and the relationship continues to deteriorate, your next options will become clear. If, on the other hand, you let yourself fall into depression, isolate yourself, become inactive, and avoid getting help, then you will become more dependent, weak, and unable to take any necessary steps to get your life back under control and moving in a positive direction. It takes strength and courage to stand up and take the necessary steps to change a negative situation. Depression and being disconnected deplete the strength necessary. So please reach out to friends, a support group, or a counselor (find one you like.)

      Your husband may not be a bad guy. As you said, he experienced abuse as a child. It’s admirable to have sympathy for him. But it doesn’t help him or you to enable his contemptuous attitude toward you. It is bad for both of you.

      Take care.


      • AJ says:

        Thank you for taking the time to write to me Alison. I’ve never felt so low. We had a huge blow out a week ago. He left work early to golf, never text me just to let me know and walked in the door 15 min late for dinner. When I told him I was upset it just went from bad to worse and worse and worse. Until I couldn’t take it anymore. I cried, broke down emotionally and vomited before going to bed. This was all thrown in my face later – it was too much according to him. We talked all wknd and I foolishly tried to get him to see this is verbal Abuse. He half heartedly admitted it is but continues to justify his behavior. He says my sarcasm or behavior causes him to be that way way. He gets me so confused I can’t think straight. Could it be my fault? Can a wife’s behavior cause verbal abuse? Isn’t that a separate issue? Sure, I have things I can work on but at the end of the day I fail to see how my behavior could even be considered abusive. He never even brings up my behavior until I’m upset w him. Then he uses that so we never have to look at his behavior. We have an appointment for counseling but now I’m really scared bc everything I read says that couples counseling only makes abusive men worse, validates the cause and effect – that I cause his behavior. I’m lost and don’t know how to move forward. Can you offer any advice? I thank you so much. I think it’s amazing you take the time to reach out to strangers to help them. You helped me. I thank you.

        • Alison says:


          Sorry about the delay, but I was out of town. I’m so sorry about the turmoil you are going through.

          Can a wife (or partner) cause the husband (partner) to be verbally abusive? Well, people definitely can provoke one another and this situation sounds as though there is mutual provoking going on. I don’t think this relationship can last if there is this much bitterness, fear or anguish (to the point of vomiting) and anger. Without seeing the both of you, I don’t know who is provoking whom more, but at this point, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t sound as though there is close to the 80% positive or neutral interaction between the two of you required to maintain a good relationship. There is far too much emotional reactivity.

          I think counseling, together and/or alone, is key to getting more grounded and centered and to learn to react in a more effective way. If you don’t like the counselor, then change counselors. If you go together to see someone, it’s important that both partners like and respect the counselor. If there is too much taking sides or if either person doesn’t instinctively think what’s being said or suggested is right, then try someone else. If you go alone, make sure you feel that the counselor is helpful to you. You have to rely on your own basic instinct and discernment. Someone can be great for one person, but not another.

          I don’t think waiting for him after work and then being angry will be effective. He will simply feel nagged, and lose further interest in you. Next time try to go do something else, leave a brief note, and handle it without an emotional breakdown. I mean, I see why you were upset, but it’s as though he’s goading you into being upset, and your emotionally-tainted discussions with him just won’t cause him to change his behavior. Consequences cause changes. I think you need to force yourself to find something to do when he doesn’t show up so that you are not becoming more and more bitter and powerless.

          Good luck.


  10. Anonynous says:

    Dear Alison,

    How do you protect yourself from certain people who are poisoning others’ opinions of you? They are also following me around on a daily basis, and last night, one of them even drove past my residence with the headlights OFF and then deliberately sped away! Should I report those people to the police?

    Please help me with this nerve-wracking issue. Thank you for your support and advice. I truly appreciate it.

    Warm regards,


    • Alison says:

      I would call the police and get a restraining order. Do you have any way of getting a license number or taking a photograph without endangering yourself. I would video the event. Lock your doors, maybe have a family member stay over, or get a good watch dog.

      All the best.

  11. Kate says:

    Thank-you for your response. I should clarify that the email is an old email that he sent to his father (Our little one is 9 months old now). He was only turning toward his father at the time and he is the only person he shares his true feelings with. He talks and emails with him daily. His father is very negative and judgmental and is too meddlesome, in my opinion. He will admit that his father is a pain and says he has stopped complaining to him after I told him how hurtful it is to me. He still communicates with him almost daily. There were other incidences where he will talk to family members about why he is upset with me and it will make it back to me at some point.
    As we started counseling about 5 months ago, we started to make some progress. I have expressed my need for quality time in exactly the way that you are referring to, “by just having fun” and I started by trying to engage him in activities I know he enjoys. He acts very awkward and uncomfortable when we are alone and I try to joke around and have fun. He says he doesn’t know why he can’t relax and be comfortable except that he feels afraid of me and is always thinking he will do something wrong. He acts very differently around other people (almost to an extreme of the crazy, fun, party guy). He turns down my attempts to engage in simple daily activities with me (walks, errands, cooking, etc) with the hopes of creating more fun memories.
    When we talked the other night, he has said that he doesn’t think he will ever be able to express his emotional needs to me and when I express my emotional needs to him, he can’t handle it. He understands that it is unfair to me but doesn’t think he can change it. He says he struggles with feeling powerful in our relationship even though I have compromised on our location, my career, and financial decisions. He says it has everything to do with his own ego and insecurities. He admits that he has kept everyone in his life at a safe distance and does not discuss life issues with any of his friends his age (he is adamant that he will not change this either). I would say that he has many friends but there isn’t much depth or substance. He says no person has ever talked to him the way that I do, in the sense that I don’t think anyone has really spoken their mind in a reasonable way with the conviction that I do. Most of the time if he doesn’t want to hear what people have to say, he will blow up at them to make them back off or just avoid them completely.
    I am afraid that he is avoiding all emotion in life and I have seen some breakdowns that show that he really does have the emotions but tries to avoid them. I can tell that he struggles to feel empathy. It is strange how his internal negative thinking can get so extreme but I have no idea what is happening or why. I can help him through those times, when he is willing to talk to me about them.
    The difficult thing is that he says his parents never argued and he does not want to have the serious discussions because they make him so uncomfortable and defensive. If we separate or divorce, I am concerned for the emotional health of my son. I am afraid that he will share inappropriate information with him and seek too much emotional support from him similar to what I think his father does to him. I realize this could even be a problem even if we stay together (similar to his parents’ marriage).
    The other thing I have noticed is how quickly he will change his mind on things. When we had some plans for our future he has changed them abruptly and shocked me with his presentation of the information. When I try to calmly discuss it with him, he will be defensive before I have ever even said anything. I truly have not over reacted to very many things so I don’t understand where his fear and defensiveness stems from. Could it be childhood experiences?

    • Kate says:

      Do you have guidelines for how to proceed with the separation in attempts to work towards repair? Our counsellor just told us we need to set things ourselves but I’m not even sure where to begin or what all needs to be considered.

    • Alison says:

      I’m glad that the email is from the past and that he has agreed to stop talking negatively about you behind your back. It still concerns me that he would ever do that, and that he feels so uncomfortable around you.

      You say he tends to avoid emotions, yet you know he experiences them because you have seen him breakdown a few times. The better a person is at handling emotions, the more willing he or she is to express them or to be around people who express them. I would recommend that when you talk about emotional issues, you make sure you don’t push too hard or go too deep, so that he will become more comfortable around emotions, knowing that he will not breakdown. As he realizes that he can discuss his feelings without being pushed to go deeper and without you over-reacting, he may gradually become more comfortable around such discussions.

      Regarding his parents who never argued: Arguing occasionally is not bad for relationships. What is much more important is how good the couple is at repairing and resolving arguments. People who remain angry for hours or days have much less of a chance of having a strong relationship. Not arguing at all may be a sign that the couple can’t handle conflict. One or both partners may begin to hide feelings and thoughts, which eventually develop into resentments. I think that it is best to learn to express differences, feelings, and desires in a positive way (nonviolent communication) because it is most effective in keeping communication candid without putting the other on the defensive. One has to also learn to think in such a way that one is not blaming the other for one’s own unhappiness.

      Yes, defensiveness is often due to one’s childhood experiences. Unfortunately it’s difficult to change without an awareness of it and a desire to change.

      All the best,


  12. Kate says:

    Is there ever a circumstance where a spouse is contemptuous indirectly by sharing feelings with another person even if they are not saying things directly to their spouse? For example, in this email, “She was all pissed off this morning because apparently she’d been up all night and couldn’t sleep. She says it’s because she is uncomfortable (pregnant 2 weeks from due date), but all she does is sleep all day and stay up all night anyway. In a way I want to say to her, what if you had a job and had to go to work? She was being a big B this morning because she was tired and crabby so I just left. I just can’t stand being around her when she’s like that and she is like that a lot. Hopefully things get better after she has the baby but I don’t know.” Is this contempt or just criticism?
    I know there have been signs of contempt toward me in the eye rolling and tone. He also does the same things towards my 10 year old. We have been going through counseling with a Gottman counselor and it is very apparent that his defensiveness and stonewalling have taken a serious toll. Recently, we had an argument that he became defensive about and he threatened divorce for the 5th or 6th time and also made other inappropriate comments. I left with the kids because I couldn’t take it anymore and I told him he needed to figure out what he needs. After a few days he decided he wants to separate but insists staying in the same house. We went to the counselor afterward and I was surprised when he pointed out that I have become contemptuous in tone and facial expression. I don’t know if that is a result of dealing with everything for the past year and especially because of the hurt I was feeling about him asking for the separation. I do know that I have started to feel like I may be ready to move on because any time I try to discuss something, always with a soft start up he begins the defensiveness and stonewalling and gets flooded. He says mean and hurtful things and will storm out. He always comes back later apologizing and saying that my complaints were valid but then he still always comes back saying that he just can’t do anything right and that he can’t stand that I always want to discuss things. I do not nag him about little things either, most discussions are about safety things or needs for quality time, building family rituals, etc. Am I just fighting a losing battle?

    • Alison says:

      Hello, I’m so sorry you are dealing with being pregnant and with a husband who is not understanding and supportive. I’m glad you are seeing a Gottman therapist though.

      The fact that your husband wrote all those negative judgments about you to another person is worrisome. He should be talking to you, and he should be making an effort to express his support and then his needs and desires. To whom did he write this email?

      Threatening divorce is unacceptable. That will only make each of you feel hurt, fearful, and defensive. Once you are at the point where you want to get a divorce, then you can discuss it calmly. But it shouldn’t be used as a threat or way to hurt your partner.

      I think you need to have a discussion, perhaps with the Gottman therapist, that if you are both willing to try for six months and then consider how the relationship is going, that you need to have some rules in place.

      1. No complaining to others about each other,
      2. No negative judgments or saying anything hurtful,
      3. No rolling of the eyes or contemptuous behavior or tone of voice,
      4. Starting every conversation with an attempt to have compassion for the other person and to listen to the other with empathy and a desire to support the person.
      5. If either person breaks rules 1-4, immediately apologize, take a 15 minute break and start over with kindness.

      If you both can’t agree to wanting to try these terms, then there is not much hope for the longevity of this relationship, or at least for any fulfillment from it. While it is good not to nag and complain, it is important that you are self-empowered and make some reasonable demands. “I want to be in relationship where we support each other and can talk openly and positively about our needs and desires, not where we are mean to each other and are defensive.”

      Let me know how it goes.


    • Alison says:

      PS You say that most of what you talk about is about safety, quality time, etc. Don’t forget to simply have fun, which may be a bit difficult when your eight months pregnant. But try to keep a little light-heartedness, fun, and romance in the relationship. On the other hand, I wouldn’t let any disrespectful comments or tone of voice slide. At least, say “Excuse me?” when you start to hear some rudeness.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.


  15. 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?

  16. 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.

  17. 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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