In my work with couples, I often lean on the work of Dr. John Gottman, a clinician and researcher with 40 years of experience studying what makes marriages successful…and what makes them fall apart. Gottman and colleagues cite the practices of curiosity, mutual affection, and turning toward our partners’ bids for connection as relationship strengtheners. Across research, Gottman has identified what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse,” the behaviors that create the most marital strain. 1 In this, Part Two of a 4-part series, we’ll be talking about Horseman 2: Contempt.
With 30 years of research observing couples to back up their claim, Gottman and colleagues affirm that contempt is the number one predictor of divorce. 2 Contempt communicates disgust, and when our chosen partners are objects of toxic negativity, we know we’re in trouble.
Examples of contempt are:
1. Name calling, cruel teasing, and mimicking—“Ohhhh, you want me to stay home with you tonight do you, you pathetic, needy child. What’s the matter, you baby? Your big mean boss hurt your feelings and you need a cuddle? Pitiful.”
2. Sarcasm and hostile humor—“Thank you SO much for pointing out that I forgot Sally’s lunch! I had no idea! I definitely didn’t receive the text from the teacher and I DEFINITELY didn’t have ANYTHING else on my mind, like, say figuring out how we’re going to get gifts for the kids after you spent all our money on bullshit. How on Earth would I ever function without your brilliance?!”
3. Scornful body language like sneering, eye-rolling, offensive hand gestures, etc
Contempt is often the result of slow-burning negativity, the kind of resentment that stores in our bodies and unleashes in moments of dysregulation. Imagine walking around with a soda can in your pocket all day as you wrangle 2 sick toddlers and then opening it in the face of a spouse who arrives home complaining about being tired. It’s hard to resolve conflict with soda dripping from your face and it’s hard to resolve conflict when your partner has made clear that you disgust them. Contempt also communicates superiority over one’s partner, and if we aren’t fighting within the assumption that we’re equals working on solving a problem from a place of equity and mutual respect, chances of compassionate resolution plummet.
How do we protect against contempt? You may remember from the article on criticism that when we’re in a state of diffuse physiological arousal or flooded, it becomes near impossible to communicate from a space of clarity and empathy. If our soda can is about to explode, it’s always a good idea to take a time out and ground ourselves. Deep breathing, a short walk in nature, slowly sipping a cold glass of water, anything that feels calming. And zooming out from an acute event of reactivity, the primary way to prevent contempt from poisoning our relationships is the ongoing practice of appreciation. Reminding ourselves internally and our partners out loud why they add value to our lives helps banish disgust from interpersonal interaction. Score-keeping in relationships is never productive; actively engaging in the practice of gratitude helps us to remember why we partnered in the first place and goes a long way toward continued cultivation of love and affection in our relationships.
- The Four Horsemen. The Gottman Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://www.gottman.com/blog/category/column/the-four-horsemen/
- Lisitsa, E. (2022, March 9). The trouble with contempt. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from https://www.gottman.com/blog/self-care-contempt/