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The No. 1 Warning Sign Your Relationship Will Fall Apart, Say Experts

If you feel contempt toward your partner—or they feel it towards you—you may be headed for a breakup.

The list of reasons why couples choose to break up is endless—infidelity, dishonesty, a steadfast refusal to compromise, poor communication, or simply "it just wasn't meant to be." But leading psychologists and relationship experts all agree that there's at least one common factor that likely exists in far too many breakups: One or both of you have developed sustained feelings of contempt for your partner. So if you find contemptuousness rearing its ugly head in your own relationship and you don't take action, take it as a warning sign that you're doomed for a breakup.

"You know contempt. It's when you feel as though you're better than your partner. It's an energy of disgust that emanates from you during fights," writes clinical social worker and relationships expert Darcy Sterling, PhD, in Psychology Today.

The Gottman Institute, a leading research authority on the psychology of marriage, has described contempt as "the most destructive negative behavior in relationships" and "the most poisonous of all relationships killers." It's the most insidious of what they call "The Four Horsemen" of marital apocalypse (the other three being criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling).

Contempt usually manifests itself when you treat your partner with a sense of disrespect that is fueled by feelings of superiority. "Contempt, simply put, says, 'I'm better than you. And you are lesser than me,'" write the experts at the Gottman Institute.

The research institution offers these two examples of contempt being wielded by a hypothetical partner:

"Look, I learned how to tell time when I was five years old. When are you ever going to learn?"

"We haven't had sex in months. What, are you too busy flirting with that guy at work? Why don't you just marry him instead?"

senior couple arguing while sitting in the living rom

As Steven Stosny, PhD, writes for Psychology Today, contempt usually grows over time "at the end of a long chain of resentments." These are typically caused by "perceptions of unfairness." Feelings of contempt toward your partner causes you to view them through the ugliest lens possible: "They're immoral, self, unstable, or stupid—there's something wrong with them," he writes.

The reason contempt is the biggest warning sign that your relationship won't survive is because it invariably leads you on a path to deeper and more dangerous conflict.

If any of this sounds familiar, know that there are things that you can do to turn your relationship around. The first order of business is to simply recognize what you're doing. If you're the one in the relationship feeling contempt, "remind yourself of your partner's positive qualities and find gratitude for positive actions," advise the Gottman Institute experts. Also, try to avoid using the second person—"you"—in delicate conversations, so that your partner won't feel directly targeted with your feelings.

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Ultimately, the goal is to foster a sense of sustained appreciation.

"The best test to measure the strength of your fondness and admiration system is to focus on how you view your relationship's history," according to the Gottman Institute. "In our research, couples who have a positive view of their past through oral history interviews are much more likely to be happy in their relationships. But if your relationship is in deep trouble, you're unlikely to elicit much praise from each other, and you'll likely have difficulty remembering the good times." And for more ways to build a stronger and longer lasting bond with your partner, make sure you know the 50 Relationship Tips That Are Actually Terrible Advice.