The Trouble with Contempt

Contempt to be the #1 predictor of divorce. What is contempt, and what makes this horseman the worst?

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Contempt to be the #1 predictor of divorce. What is contempt, and what makes this horseman the worst?

Contempt to be the #1 predictor of divorce. What is contempt, and what makes this horseman the worst?

In his Relationship Alphabet column, Zach argued that E is for Empathy, which ties in with the topic covered here as we tackle self-care and the Four Horsemen—more specifically, contempt!

Contempt is the #1 predictor of divorce. What is contempt, and what makes this horseman the worst? The horseman of contempt carries with it a poison that seeps into our interactions, turning them into something ugly and toxic.

This poison can take many forms, including:

  • Hostile humor and sarcasm
  • Mockery, name calling, and mimicking
  • Offensive body language (eye rolling, sneering, etc.)

Whatever form it takes, contempt can be lethal to a relationship. Dr. Gottman says, “contempt is sulfuric acid for love.” It is the most poisonous of all relationship killers, destroying psychological, emotional, and physical health.

Contempt is poisonous because it conveys disgust. It can only be destructive. It is virtually impossible for a couple to resolve a problem while one partner is getting the message that the other finds them disgusting.

Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts, and it attacks from a position of relative superiority. It inevitably leads to more conflict and never to reconciliation. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Jan comes home from a long day with children in tow to find her husband, Pete, on the couch. She asks him for help in making dinner. When Pete tells her he is tired, Jan snaps:

“You’re ‘tired’?! Cry me a river… I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid! Just to be more pathetic…”

Or imagine another couple. After Flynn tells Luke he’d rather Luke not go out with his friends that night, Luke lashes out:

“You don’t want me to go out with my friends tonight? Surprise! When have you ever been okay with me going anywhere? Would you like to tie me to something in this living room to ensure that I never leave you?”

Couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, and so on) than other people.

Luckily, contempt has an antidote. This antidote is building a culture of appreciation.

According to Dr. Julie Gottman:

“In our humanity we need loving connection with others for our very survival – after all, biologically, we are pack animals who subsist through belonging to our pack. Contempt severs us from our pack. It leads us to cut ourselves off from others, pull inwards, and end up alone. Giving appreciation is one of the most powerful ways to connect with those around us. After all, we love to hear good things about ourselves and to be seen for the good we do in the world. Appreciation draws us closer to those who appreciate us, and in turn, when we give appreciation, we draw ourselves closer to those we love. It’s caring for ourselves by being loving.”

How can you build a culture of appreciation? Click here.

Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute and editor for The Gottman Relationship Blog.