In his latest Relationship Alphabet column on Monday, Zach argued that E is for Empathy, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Today on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we are equipped to tackle what’s next in our series on self care and the Four Horsemen: Contempt!

In his four decades of research, Dr. Gottman has found contempt to be 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. In the famous words of Dr. Gottman, “contempt is sulfuric acid for love.” It is the most poisonous of all relationship killers – destroying psychological, emotional, and physical health. Anderson Cooper of CNN reacts to Dr. Gottman’s findings on contempt in this short clip:

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. As we know, it inevitably leads to more conflict – 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, Emma and Luke. After Emma tells him she’d rather he 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?”

Dr. Gottman has found that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, and so on) than other people! Things aren’t looking good for Jan, Pete, Emma, or Luke…

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

According to Dr. Julie Gottman, it works something like this: 

“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 we build a culture of appreciation? Look forward to a detailed answer on Friday! 

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.