Contempt is dangerous because it not only attacks a person's character, but it assumes a position of superiority over them.
When we communicate this way, we might treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule them, or use dismissive body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing.
If you notice any of these phrases coming from you or your partner, your relationship is in trouble:
1. "You don't deserve me."
Language that reflects contempt communicates to your partner that you believe they are less-than you, which can damage their self-esteem.
For example: "You're lucky that I even put up with you."
What to say instead: "I'm struggling to see us as partners right now," or "I'm viewing you as less valuable than me, and I need to work on it." State how you feel in a calm and honest way.
2. "Stop asking if I'm okay. Everything is fine." (When it isn't.)
What to say instead: "I'm really upset, but I'm not ready to talk about it yet." Instead of ignoring your problems, take some time to face and reflect on them.
3. "You're pathetic."
Name-calling simplifies a person into one negative attribute instead of appreciating the complexity of who they are: an individual with a host of characteristics, some of which we may not like.
What to say instead: "I don't like how you handled that situation." Express what they did that you didn't like, and why it bothered you.
4. "I hate you."
Language that reflects how you feel in a heated, emotional moment but isn't representative of how you feel in the big-picture is damaging.
It overgeneralizes momentary feelings and creates insecurity even in the good moments. Your partner may think: "Do they really love me right now if they said 'I hate you' last week?"
What to say instead: "It's hard for me to be around you right now." Take a minute to calm down before you say something untrue, even if it feels true in the moment.
5. "You're a bad parent."
Partners know each other's insecurities. Language that exploits these vulnerabilities isn't just hurtful — it undermines trust by taking someone's weakness and using it to make yourself look like the better person.
If you are struggling to discipline your child, for example, your partner might say: "You spoil him too much, and it's because your mother spoiled you, too."
What to say instead: "I think this situation is triggering issues from your past. How can we work through them together?" Respectfully acknowledge areas of sensitivity and communicate in a way that doesn't feel like an attack on their character.
6. "You're being crazy."
Language that manipulates or twists reality with the intent of making your partner doubt themselves is called "gaslighting," and it undermines their perception of reality.
For example, in a defensive moment, you might say, "You're delirious. That problem is all in your head."
What to say instead: "I think your response to this situation is making it worse." Express what you don't like about your partner's actions in a constructive way, rather than try to manipulate them into behaving the way you want.
7. "You're so needy."
When you use language that says your partner is annoying, smothering, or generally bothering you, it suggests that their needs don't matter.
What to say instead: "I hear that you want my attention, but I'm feeling suffocated and need some space."
8. "I'm over this."
Language that threatens the end of your relationship — like "I'm leaving," "I'm done," or "I want to break up" — creates instability and insecurity.
Your partner may struggle to trust you if you feel like a flight risk, which limits intimacy.
What to say instead: "I'm really upset right now and need to take a moment," or "We need to have a serious conversation about our relationship." In general, you only want to threaten to leave when you mean it and have the intention to follow through.
Communicating is a skill that requires practice and deliberate effort. Here are three things people in healthy relationships do:
- Use "I" statements: Speak from your experience. Instead of focusing on your partner and pointing out their faults or flaws, talk about your feelings, perceptions and observations.
- Say "thank you": Communicate things you like and appreciate about your partner as often as possible — it goes a long way to feeling connected.
- Take responsibility: Apologize for your role in relationship dysfunction and strive to be your best self.
Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, is a board-certified psychologist and author of "Letting Go of Your Ex." She specializes in marriages, love addiction and breakups, and received her clinical training at Harvard Medical School. She has written almost 50 peer-reviewed journal articles and delivered more than 75 presentations on the psychology of relationships. Follow her on Twitter @DrCortneyWarren.