My Account

The Four Horsemen: Contempt

Contempt is the worst of the four horsemen. It is the number one predictor of divorce, but it can be defeated.

Share this post:

Contempt is the worst of the four horsemen. It is the most destructive negative behavior in relationships. In Dr. John Gottman’s four decades of research, he has found it to be the number one predictor of divorce. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book, Blink:

“If Gottman observes one or both partners in a marriage showing contempt toward the other, he considers it the most important sign that a marriage is in trouble.”

When you communicate with contempt, the results can be cruel. Treating others with disrespect and mocking them with sarcasm and condescension are forms of contempt. So are hostile humor, name-calling, mimicking, and body language such as eye-rolling and sneering. In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust and superiority, especially moral, ethical, or characterological.

Contempt, simply put, says, “I’m better than you. And you are lesser than me.”

Why contempt is so destructive and dangerous

Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, and it arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict—particularly dangerous and destructive forms of conflict—rather than to reconciliation. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with them and that you’re condescending and acting as their superior.

Take a look at this couple. One partner has a need always to be on time, even early, yet the other partner seems to have difficulty keeping up and being ready to go when their partner needs them to be. Here’s a form of contempt that the punctual partner might dish out:

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

Or this couple, who have a recurring fight about sex:

“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?”

The research found that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than couples who are not contemptuous. Contempt is the most poisonous of all relationship killers. We cannot emphasize that enough. Contempt destroys psychological, emotional, and physical health.

Anderson Cooper of CNN reacts to Dr. John Gottman’s findings on contempt, particularly about how emotionally and physically destructive it can be, in this short clip:

Fortunately, like all of the four horsemen, there is an effective antidote to contempt, and it comes in two forms.

The antidotes to contempt

Short-term: Describe your feelings and needs

If you’re experiencing contempt in your relationship, there are proven antidotes to combat it and turn conflict into positive growth. The first way to do that is to start small and describe your own feelings and needs about any given issue. Try to avoid using “you” statements, which can make your partner feel blamed or attacked.

“I’m feeling neglected sexually, and I need physical connection. Can we talk about how to make that happen so it works for both of us?”

Or, in terms of being punctual:

“It’s very important to me to be on time. Can you please help me with that?”

Short-term measures like that are the best place to start, but to create long-term immunity, you will need to think about the greater context of your relationship.

Long-term: Build a culture of fondness and admiration

The best antidote to contempt is to build a culture of fondness and admiration for each otherwhich, metaphorically, strengths your relationship’s immune system. It is the second level of our Sound Relationship House.

Fondness and admiration aren’t buildt overnight, but if you intentionally work to do small, positive things for your partner every day, then you can create that system. Once you’ve created it, it will act as a consistent bulwark against contempt.

The best test to measure the strength of your fondness and admiration system is to focus on how you view your relationship’s history. In the 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.

Talking about the happy events of the past, however, helps many couples reconnect. Remember the good times, and also remember the tough times where, together, you pushed through and succeeded, which is when couples “glorify the struggle,” and it helps to build solidarity in your relationship. Focus on offering daily gestures and expressions of appreciation, kindness, support, and love. These can be as simple as a six-second kiss, a stress-reducing conversation, or spending five minutes to thank each other for how you support each other.

Although happy couples will feel frustrated at times by their partner’s personality flaws, they still feel that their partner is worthy of honor and respect. Even though sharing fondness and admiration is crucial in a relationship, these positive sentiments often dwindle overtime through conflict, resentment, or simply the absentmindedness that can come as a result of life’s many distractions.

That being said, sharing fondness and admiration in your relationship is not complicated, and can be done even if you think those positive feelings are buried too deep beneath recent conflicts. Positive thoughts invoke positive feelings, and the goal is to turn both into positive actions that help to heal and bring companionship back to your relationship. The more positivity you have in your relationship, the more you will create positive sentiment override, which is what successful couples rely on to stay connected.

If you revive fondness and admiration for each other, you are more likely to approach conflict resolution as a team. Fondness and admiration will expand your sense of “we-ness” and solidarity as a couple, and it will keep the two of you as connected as you felt when you first met.

Learn how to make your relationship work in the first Gottman Relationship Coach program. Unsure which Gottman Relationship Coach product is for you? Take our quiz!

The Marriage Minute is an email newsletter from The Gottman Institute that will improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less. Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create a system of fondness and admiration. Got a minute? Sign up below.

Share this post:

Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

Recommended products

Gottman Relationship Adviser Product Image, two faces touching at the noses

Original price was: $250.00.Current price is: $179.00.

Our Best prices of the year on the Gottman Relationship Adviser. 

Celebrate Dads this month.

Sale Ends Soon!

The Gottman Relationship Adviser is a complete approach to relationship wellness. Measure your relationship health with the research-based Gottman Assessment, analyze five key areas of your partnership to identify your strengths and weaknesses, then start a tailored, step-by-step digital program proven to heal and strengthen your connection—all on your schedule and from anywhere.

The Adviser uses the legendary scientific Gottman Method to help you understand what’s really going on in your relationship—and gives you exactly what you need to improve it.

Original price was: $298.00.Current price is: $139.00.

Drs John and Julie Gottman are excited to introduce this  Gottman Relationship Coach collection, All About Conflict.

The first program, “Dealing with Conflict”  teaches the basics of communication in conflict. You will learn which of the problems your relationship faces are solvable, and which you may continue to encounter. If any of these perpetual problems have you stuck, the Gottmans can help you get “unstuck” and understand each other’s perspectives. “Dealing with Conflict” helps prepare you for the regular, inevitable moments of friction that are bound to arise in any relationship.

The second program, “What to Do After a Fight” teaches how to navigate more difficult arguments and the feelings that come along with them. If “Dealing with Conflict” makes regular communication “smooth sailing,” “What to Do After a Fight” helps you address rough waters to keep your relationship from capsizing. Often, more serious arguments arise because they touch on values and beliefs one or both of you hold dear. Explore what’s underneath the storm with the game-changing exercises contained in this program. 

NOTE: If you already purchased “Dealing with Conflict” or “Making Up After an Argument” individually and want to take advantage of this special offer, make sure you are logged in to your Gottman Connect account and the price difference will automatically be deducted from your purchase of the second program.

Original price was: $149.00.Current price is: $89.00.

In “Dealing with Conflict” Drs. John and Julie Gottman guide you through a series of exercises, concepts, and communication skills that can truly change your conflict conversations. With these new skills, going from arguing to understanding is possible. Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional.

In this program you will learn:

  • Why you keep fighting about the same things, and how to get “unstuck.”
  • How to address recurring issues within your relationship.
  • How to approach conflict conversations gently, in a way that addresses specific issues.
  • How to identify what your feelings and experiences are around issues that are causing conflict, and how to gently bring them up with your partner.
  • How to understand your partner’s side of an issue, and how to get your partner to understand where you’re coming from.
  • How to examine the individual values, ideas, and beliefs that influence how you and your partner engage with the world around you.
  • More about your own emotions.

“Buy Now” will take you to GOTTMAN CONNECT to purchase and view this product.

Original price was: $119.00.Current price is: $79.00.

Research-based Foundations for a Lifetime of Love.  The Gottman Relationship Coach is an inspiring and educational multimedia experience designed to enhance the well-being of relationships. Participants will be guided through research-based tools and communication skills that can transform relationships—all based on the popular Gottman Method. The first program, “How to Make Your Relationship Work”, is now available and includes:

  • The Gottman Method and How to Make Your Relationship Work
  • How do we predict the future of a relationship?
  • How to build a Sound Relationship House
  • What to do when the destructive Four Horsemen enter your relationship

“Buy Now” will take you to GOTTMAN CONNECT to purchase and view this product.

Related posts

What Porcupines Can Teach Us About Making Love

Laura Silverstein

Dr. Gottman's "porcupine sex" story is a comical depiction of an all-too-familiar dynamic between men and women in the bedroom. ...

Read More

Couple feeling emotionally stuck.

Overcoming Gridlock This Holiday Season

Sanaa Hyder

Gridlock. The word itself conjures up the image of sitting in your car for hours while traffic around you barely inches ...

Read More

Stonewalling vs. The Silent Treatment

Stonewalling vs The Silent Treatment: Are They The Same?

Kari Rusnak

What’s the difference between stonewalling and the silent treatment? ...

Read More

D is for Defensiveness

Zach Brittle, LMHC

Defensiveness is a wicked game. But it’s winnable. ...

Read More

How to Be Kind When You’re Upset With Your Partner

Sanaa Hyder

Kindness is not just important in the heat of an argument. ...

Read More

Emotional Intelligence Creates Loving and Supportive Parenting

John Gottman

Parents have to be smarter about teaching their children emotional intelligence, and John Gottman can show you how. ...

Read More

Subscribe to Gottman Love Notes

Sign up and start your relationship transformation. Subscribe and get the latest on relationships, therapy, and much more from the experts. Includes a free download and access to special pricing on Gottman products every month