Contempt – Relationship Poison

Dr. John Gottman has researched couples for over 40 years. One of the things that he is known for is being able to predict which couples would make it and which would fail with a 94% accuracy rate.

Predicting individual behaviors and outcomes is tricky business with a very low accuracy rate.

One would think that accurately predicting outcomes for a couple would be nearly impossible. So how is Dr. Gottman able to predict which couples would fail with such accuracy?

Dr. Gottnan watches for particular behaviors that he has named the 4 Horsemen – named after the Biblical 4 horsemen of the apocalypse.

These behaviors include criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.

During conflicted discussions, these four behaviors often raise their ugly head. All four of these behaviors tend to escalate discussions into unproductive argument and can be damaging to relationships. However, Dr. Gottman did not need to look for all four of these behaviors to predict a relationship that would not make it. He only needed to look for one: Contempt.

Contempt is poison to relationships.

Contempt appears anytime we take a position of superiority over our partner. It often includes put-downs and negative labeling (or name calling). One of the more common labels couples use is, “Selfish.”

Contempt is also expressed non-verbally.

Eye rolling is one of the more noticeable expressions of contempt. Another, less obvious, signal is we raise the left side of our upper lip. Humans are usually subtle with this gesture, but it is nearly universal in the animal world -just picture a dog snarling.

Contempt doesn’t just hurt us emotionally; contempt can also cause physical harm. In one study, Dr. Gottman found that partners on the receiving end of contempt experience more infectious illnesses (colds, flus, and viruses) than the general population.

If you find that conflict discussions with your partner frequently erode to contemptuous arguments, it’s time to take action.

Here are a few steps that can help.

  • Build a culture of appreciation. This is not a quick solution, but it is the most effective. Contempt occurs when one partner acts superior to the other. Be intentional about recognizing the good qualities of your partner and speak them to your partner.
  • Speak for you, not about your partner. Talk about what you are experiencing. Use “I”-statements rather than “you” statements. “I didn’t see it that way. I thought …. (talk about the situation, not about your partner).
  • Take a break. When we get flooded with emotions, we say and do things that we regret. Words are not erased once they leave your mouth. Let your partner know that you are flooded and need to take a break. Also reassure them that you will come back to the discussion, but you just need to do it when you are in a better state of mind. Practice this. Rehearse how you would ask to take a break. “I’m feeling flooded and need to take a break, but this is an important discussion that I want to continue.“ It’s important to be prepared to take a break if you need it, but sometimes in the moment, the words to ask for a break gracefully are not readily available to your mouth.
  • Get help. Contempt is destructive to relationships and to the people on the receive end. If you find that you or your partner are unable to break the cycle, couples or individual therapy may be helpful.

Jackie Dunagan, LAMFT
jdunagan @