How To Cripple Your Marriage With Bad Communication: Contempt (Part 2)

How To Cripple Your Marriage With Bad Communication: Contempt (Part 2)

A marriage improves over time as partners learn better ways to communicate. John Gottman, in his research, discovered patterns of communicating that he used to predict which marriages will succeed, and which will fail.

This is part two of a four-part series — Four communication styles that will cripple your marriage.

His research emphasizes four communication styles — The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — can lead to divorce, if left unaddressed.

The four horsemen are CriticismContemptDefensiveness, and Stonewalling.


Whereas criticism is divisive, contempt is considered the most corrosive of all four horsemen. In a marriage, contempt is attacking your partner with the intent of insulting him or her.

Feeling as if your partner is beneath you, cynicism and unfriendly sarcasm are ways contempt shows up in your marriage. Insults and name-calling — lazy, fat, stupid — becomes less about solving the conflict; and more about inflicting harm on your spouse.

Here’s an example…

Mike: “I’m considering running a 10k for a charity my job is sponsoring this summer.”

Celia: “You can’t be serious? You’re too lazy to walk around the block, and you think you can run a 10k? You’ll pass out before the halfway mark. Get real.”

Cutting remarks, mockery, tone of voice, and eye-rolling sends the message, “you disgust me,” to your spouse. Gottman considers it the best predictor of marital divorce.

Viewing your partner as worthless is the significant difference between criticism and contempt.

Criticism sees your partner as the problem in the marriage.
Contempt sees your partner as the problem, because of your disgust for him or her as a person.

It Builds Over Time

Contempt develops over time. Relational injuries are bound to happen; and if left unattended, they slowly erode the foundation of the marriage.

Ignoring emotional wounds contributes to infections that spreads to other areas of the relationship.

Intimacy suffers.

Risk of neglect increases.

Emotionally abandoning your partner is more likely.

Joking and laughing dies out.

Appreciation disappears.

You become complacent, bored, and disinterested. The fire of your marriage dulls — leaving the door wide open for contempt to make its entrance.

Contempt comes in on the back end of remorse that’s not genuine, apologies that don’t happen, and complaints that are ignored.

Unsettled anger from these small, but significant, moments lead to disgust. Relationships are built on small moments.

Ignoring your partner.


Intentional compliments.

Expressing appreciation.

Bandaging emotional wounds.

“I was wrong for what I said to you. I’m sorry.”

Positive or negative, small seemingly unimportant, words and actions decimates or strengthens your marriage. In the same way, ongoing negative thoughts about your spouse gives energy to contempt.

In contemptuous relationships, the goal is less about reconciliation. Expressing moral superiority takes the lead — “I’m better than you. My actions are justified, yours are not.”

The underlying message implied, if not directly stated, is…

Why are you here?

Why are you in my life?

Just leave!

You are useless.

Avoiding Contempt

Okay. I get it. Contempt isn’t helpful. How do I avoid it?

By not doing it! No, seriously….

Two ideas to consider in order to avoid contempt.

The first, more immediate, preventive action is to establish a habit of appreciation in your marriage.

Take a moment to meditate on the reasons you value your spouse. Yep. Why do you admire him or her?

Digging into the memories of your relationship story may be necessary.

Reminding yourself of your partner’s positive qualities sounds simple — but in reality its challenging when your marriage is in a distressed place.

But your sense of affection, honor, and respect towards your partner maintains the distance needed from contempt to revive the admiration that’s been lost.

You’re not done…

Verbally acknowledging your spouse’s positive qualities is like injecting fresh blood into a relationship that’s hemorrhaging.

Establishing a habit of appreciation won’t happen overnight. But stick with it. I like Gottman’s saying — small things often. Catch your spouse doing something right. And let him or her know you caught them.

The second, more long term, action is attending to, and bandaging up the emotional wounds that have been ignored.

Discussing incidents from the past that led to emotional wounds directly addresses the source of the disconnection.

While it’s not justifiable, understanding the unaddressed feelings of loneliness, abandonment, neglect, betrayal, and so on gives insight into the attitude, and behavior of your contemptuous spouse.

Exploring those more vulnerable feelings in safety repairs the wounds that were previously ignored, and helps couples reconnect.

Showing empathy for your partner’s injuries, and being able to fully express your own is how you overcome contempt.

Knowing your partner gets how he or she has injured you leaves little space for contempt to grow.

Once contempt has taken residence in your relationship, the process of evicting it is no easy task. But it’s not impossible.

Reconnecting through building a habit of appreciation, and repairing through addressing past emotional injuries are steps towards getting past contempt.


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