4 Horsemen – Contempt (Part 2 of 4)


Through the extensive research and work of John Gottman (world renowned author, researcher, and marriage therapist) four behaviors were identified that are likely to harm any relationship, especially an intimate relationship such as marriage.  These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  This series will cover all four. Last time we explored criticism, and today’s focus will be on contempt.

Contempt: Attacking your partner’s sense of self

Gottman defines contempt specifically as “attacking [your partner’s] sense of self with an intent to insult or abuse.” Here are some examples of what this negative behavior might look like. It could be as blatant as name calling (idiot, fatty, slob, etc.) or as seemingly innocent as eye-rolling. Negative body language, insults, mocking, a disrespectful and demeaning tone, and harsh sarcasm are all possible examples of contempt. Although by definition contempt is intentional, these contemptuous behaviors can often slip into a relationship without a person even realizing it at first. Awareness of tone, body language, and sarcastic humor are key. 

Contempt is Dangerous

Contempt is one of the most relationally dangerous of the Four Horsemen, often leading to divorce. It can creep into our general attitude towards our partner, creating an emotionally unsafe environment. When we act or speak out of spite, we are showing contempt. Imagine a husband who is constantly insulting and disrespectful, attacking and being hateful to his wife. Her desire to connect, to be close to him, to love him will soon begin to fade.

There is Hope

So, is there any hope for couples who have gotten to this place? Absolutely. Gottman says the opposite of contempt is appreciation, and to weed out these dangerous behaviors, we must “build a culture of appreciation.” Remember and focus on what you love and enjoy about your partner. Do not dwell and stew on the negative. Sure, maybe he always forgets to put his dirty laundry in the hamper and leaves it on the bathroom floor. You are tempted to call him a lazy slob. But instead, you remember how he often helps you with the dishes without being asked and how he keeps the grass mowed. These are things you truly appreciate.

The second half of this prescription is to not just notice internally, but to verbally acknowledge and tell your partner what you appreciate about them or what they do. This may feel unnatural at first, but it will get easier the more you do it. Intentionally acknowledging your appreciation builds up a positive environment which can protect against any future negative incidents.

The Benefit of the Doubt

In addition to focusing on appreciation, another way to ward off contempt is to try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Instead of assuming the worst, you assume the best. Assume your partner has good intentions. Assume they are doing the best they can.

Let us review: So instead of allowing a toxic, disrespectful, and spiteful attitude to creep into your relationship, you can stop it in its tracks by focusing on appreciation and assuming the best. Notice what you appreciate. And when you do, tell your partner!

Robert Mcguire, Jr., LCMHC, EMDR-Therapist, is a licensed therapist in Charlotte, NC. Robert is available to see individuals or couples in the state of North Carolina, online or in-person. To learn more about Robert and how he can help work with you to reach your goals, click here at https://charlottecounselors.com/robert-mcguire-lcmhc-csat-c-emdr-therapist/. You can also email him at Robert@charlottecounselors.com or call him at 704-578-3323.