Contempt in Happy Marriages: The Quiet Pain We Don’t Talk About

Whew, I’m not sure if I’m ready to talk about this one. But it’s been on my mind for a while, and if it’s something that troubles me this much, I have to assume it’s troubling people like you, too. We don’t talk about it because it’s painful, embarrassing, and difficult to comprehend.

How do we navigate contempt in our marriages—the kind that subsists even when we are, for the most part, happy and satisfied together?

My husband and I separated two years ago. We had been navigating difficulties in our marriage from early on. They were mostly external things to begin with: a chronic illness that rendered my husband unable to participate in the household and family tasks, an ex who was determined to make our marriage miserable, and undiagnosed depression and anxiety in us both. As time went on, those external circumstances (that is, things that didn’t stem directly from our marriage) became internal problems. Frustration about these things led to frustration with each other, disappointment in how we both were responding to the issues at hand, and eventually, complete dissatisfaction with each other. I had been in therapy for two years to try to contend with these feelings, but to no avail. I finally realized that separation was probably our only option.

During our six-month separation, we both worked on ourselves. We changed. We grew. We gained new tools in therapy to help us navigate the conversations we needed to have if we were going to heal our marriage. And in the end, we decided to reconcile.

Our marriage has been a dream since then. The last two years have felt like the honeymoon phase we never got to have when we first got married. We’re not perfect by any means. We argue and get disappointed in each other from time to time. But we finally know how to handle those circumstances when they arise, and we always end up handling them with grace.

So why is there still some lingering contempt here?

It’s difficult to explain what I mean by contempt. It’s not unforgiveness—we forgave the past and left it there. It’s also not unresolved problems. We handle our problems beautifully when they arise. So, when I say contempt, the only way I can describe it is a latent sense of resentment that builds up over years of living life with the same person day in and day out. It’s those little things that bug you about each other: the way he chews far too loud, the way she never puts the cap back on the toothpaste. These daily resentments toward each other add up and turn into contempt—a lack of respect toward each other for the little frustrations that add up over time.

Can we just be honest about this fact? I think the only reason it’s so shrouded in shame is that we feel like we can’t talk about it without facing scorn and judgement. But if we’re being really honest with ourselves, isn’t it just kind of … part and parcel to being married?

Many truths can exist at once. We can love some dearly, yet be deeply frustrated by some of their annoying quirks. We can respect someone profoundly, yet disrespect the way they conduct themselves in certain situations. And, we can forgive without ever completely forgetting. These things, spread out over a lifetime, create contempt.

I wish I could put a bow on this conversation. You know, provide a neat little listicle of 8 Ways to Overcome Contempt in Your Marriage! But the truth is, I don’t necessarily think there is an answer. Not every challenge in life is a problem to be solved. Sometimes, the solution is nothing more than learning to acknowledge it with honesty and without shame. The answer is simply to say: this is part of what it’s like to be married, and I don’t judge myself for it. I don’t judge my spouse, either. There is nothing wrong with us for feeling this way.

Wouldn’t life be so much more satisfying if we gave ourselves permission to accept an uncomfortable truth, instead of insisting on fixing it or denying that it exists? Of course, we should do everything possible to fix the things that can be fixed. But some things, especially in marriage, are problems that can be worked on slowly, gently, over the course of a loving lifetime. When we learn to truly accept and believe that we have the rest of our lives to sort out these things, we don’t feel so troubled by them. The immediacy disappears, and we become patient. We trust that as long as there is love, it will prevail. It will especially prevail over the buildup of resentment or contempt that accumulate through the years.

Let’s be gentle with ourselves and our partners in the face of contempt in our marriages. It will sort itself out in the end.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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