Dealing with a Contemptuous Heart

A post on how to guard your heart against contempt.

Contempt, noun - the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving of scorn.

Marriage is so beautiful when it works well, and so draining when it doesn’t. Working with couples, I see up close and personal how the hurt of contempt can wreck a marriage, and in some seasons I’ve gone home to see it do the same damage in my own.

Contempt shows up in relationships through the cycle of expressing a need, having it received with dismissal or defensiveness, and then wheels into withdrawal to protect oneself. After a few cycles of this pattern, our hearts can become hard if we let it. One begins to see the flaws in our partner as character traits, newly minted as “the problem” in the relationship.

Contempt is ultimately an issue of the heart, and it can be helpful to go to the Lord when you’re struggling. Turning toward God to help you with your heart is the core of what it means to be a Christian, as it is this concept lived out that reflects a dependence on God to make change through our hearts. Sin is not about behaviors alone, but about the heart through which it originates. That means that changed behavior without a changed heart doesn’t last.

Before diving in further, I want to encourage one’s agency to decide how to show up in marriage. You can decide to have a posture toward change, a heart toward mercy, and an openness to forgive. You can also decide to no longer be a part of the persistent discord in your relationship by prioritizing the work needed in your heart. This is the preliminary work to change, a decision that you want something different.

What are the consequences of not addressing contempt in your heart? It’s the beginning of division in your union, which is often a slow burn to either a distant relationship or divorce. I am of the belief that none of us need our spouses. That’s why romantic love is so powerful in its beauty and so painful in its toxicity— we choose our spouse. A contemptuous heart blocks our ability to choose in love because we can’t choose what we don’t respect.

In an effort to avoid division in our hearts, how exactly does one protect against contempt? It’s by guarding your heart against a response that compromises change.

When I take a posture with my husband that says, “ Well I’m not going to do this because he doesn’t do that”, not only I have focused on him being the problem, but I’ve joined with him in the persistence of that problem, causing further discord in our marriage. My wrong treatment of my partner to justify his wrong treatment of me is something that contributes to the hardening of my heart in contempt.

It’s worth saying that in relationships we are not immune to the impact of our partner’s choices, though we’re responsible for our response. I think this is often a misunderstood concept. Partners say something to the effect of, “You ignored my needs in the marriage, so that made me stop trying “ or, “ You don’t do things to help me, so don’t expect me to do things that help you”. Both situations have a focused response to a partner’s action or inaction. While my partner has influence over why I feel something, how I respond is still up to me.

Thankfully, God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). When He wants to do a work in us, He does the opposite of what we think He should do. He uses the weak to show his strength for example, and He uses the simple to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). It’s the same concept with how to change things in marriage. By first yielding one’s justification to be contemptuous, one allows the ability for change in marriage to come about. It’s your heart that is the focus, not your partner’s behaviors.

Please don’t misunderstand, our partners are still accountable for their decisions and the impact of those decisions. Yet, while God is quite interested in how the behaviors, words, or choices of my spouse hurt me, it’s been my experience that He usually checks my response to it before bringing about change.

This is hard teaching, and personally, it has not been a graceful practice for me. As I write this, I’m in a season of seeking the Lord in this matter and it has been wildly difficult. But, I love Jesus. And because I love Him, I long to honor Him with my heart towards my husband, not only in smooth seasons but also in the rocky ones. Though I mess this up often, I try to reorient myself to this standard.

Simply put, it is this standard of love for God that calls me to respond to my husband in love. It’s not a “ when you do right by me, then I’ll do right by you” approach that works, because the standard for a believer is not how I think you should be treated, but how God calls me to treat you.

After spending some time in prayer on this matter, I’ll share with you what the Holy Spirit reminded me about the Word. What I was counting as love ( how I feel towards my spouse) was not God’s standard of love ( 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8). I think God often requires us to act in obedience first, as opposed to us responding to a feeling that prompts our obedience (John 14:15).

I hope to validate that it’s difficult not to store up wrongs, especially when you’ve communicated what you need to change not from a point preference, but out of an expression of pain. The way one responds to hurt is a breeding ground for contempt; it begins as a wound of hurt that seals into scars of anger, which left unchecked can birth sin.

The Bible says don’t sin in your anger (Ephesians 4:26). It’s not wrong to feel angry, but the emphasis here is on the importance of how we deal with it. My spouse’s actions or inaction have an impact on my emotional state and my experiences. Those are things I can express and/or hold him accountable to, but I am ultimately responsible for not letting my hurt compromise my response to love.

In instances where I’ve shared my hurt with my spouse and he’s chosen to be unresponsive, I am still responsible for how I communicate my hurt. My vows were a covenant promise of my commitment to remain steadfast through health or sickness, in a state of wealth or poverty, and through the good and the bad times. The standard as a follower of Christ is to show up like Jesus would in my marriage every day so that even where my spouse is falling short, he might be won over to raise his standard of behavior to match Christ ( 1 Peter 3:1). And further raising the bar, I am responsible to extend understanding, as we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). This requires that I exude humility to both my need to receive and extend mercy, forgiveness and grace in my marriage always.

Above all, I trust what God says about how He does things. He arrests our hearts before He arrests behaviors. There are some things in my marriage that might not change, but my heart's response to them can. The Bible tells us not to get weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9). My spouse might not choose to respond the way I want him to, but how I respond has a lot of influence on the receptiveness of his heart to change. If I communicate to him my hurt by being hurtful, I contribute to the likelihood that he’ll respond with defensiveness and focus on the attack as opposed to the heart of my request.

It’s true, seasons of battling contempt of heart are painstakingly hard. I hope if you’re going through something similar, you feel seen that it is indeed a battle and one that requires a resolve to fight. However, I also hope that the great comfort of turning toward God with matters of the heart will be helpful to you, as it has been encouraging to me in the continuous work of improving my marriage.

So, if there’s anything I can encourage you in it’s this: You get to decide to show the love of a Christ in your marriage. The love of Christ is enduring, and it is praying and speaking life into your relationship, while also not allowing the presentation of your hurt to compromise your attempts for repair.

It is my hope and prayer that these concepts help you feel more empowered toward restoration in your marriage during seasons of challenge. Sometimes these seasons are hard and long, but God is always faithful to help us withstand it when we choose to respond in obedience to His standards.

** The content above should not be applied to abusive relationships. If you’re experiencing this please refer to the resource below.

National Domestic Violence Hotline (USA)

1.800.799.SAFE (7233) / TTY 1.800.787.3224 Text “start” to 88788