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Addressing and Eliminating the Biggest Predictor of Divorce: Understanding the Third Horseman “Contempt”

By January 6, 2023December 18th, 2023Integrated Care Clinic

If you feel like your relationship is underwater, it is important to take a look at whether you are perpetuating or experiencing any maladaptive communicative behaviors. One method that might assist couples identify maladaptive communication behaviors is the Gottman Method, developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, which is an evidenced-based couples therapy approach that is based on hundreds of scientific studies performed on over 3000 couples. The Gottman Method has been able to identify several predictors of divorce in their research. They identify these as four specific behaviors that can destroy relationships, and named them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Of the four of these, contempt is the one most predictive of divorce and therefore understanding and eliminating it is crucial for having a successful relationship.

Identifying Contempt

Contempt involves putting your partner down or speaking to them in a scornful way. It involves taking the moral high ground, in that you are trying to set yourself up above your partner. For instance, saying “I would never hurt you like that”, implying that you are more “adult” or “kinder” than the other person. Contempt goes even further than criticism and also includes:

  • Sarcasm
  • Cynicism
  • Name calling
  • Hostility
  • Mocking the other person
  • Using eye-rolling 

Most importantly, the intent behind the language is that it specifically includes expressing a moral superiority to your partner. It conveys a sense of disgust and can destroy relationships. When one partner receives a message of contempt, it is nearly impossible for a productive conversation or resolution to happen after that.

Identifying the Antidote to Contempt 

Typically underneath contempt one can find a desire, a feeling, a wish, or a need. Contempt often bubbles up when those needs are not able to be met over a long period of time. Therefore, the research-based antidote against contempt is to describe your needs and feelings to another person in an effective way and to build a culture of appreciation with your partner. People often think that they are expressing their feelings to other people effectively, but in fact they are often expressing judgements instead which is often not effective. So what is effective? Gentle Start Up (and building a culture of appreciation)! 

Gentle Start Up

In a similar manner to the strategies for preventing criticism, Gentle Start-Up is a technique that allows a person to address their needs and feelings to their partner and can be used to decrease contempt in a relationship. Here are the steps:

How to do a Gentle Start-Up

  • Use “I” statements instead of “You” Statements 
    • Criticism, as we discussed earlier, is usually an attack on another person’s character. When you start with “you” instead of “I”, a statement is more likely to be critical in nature and lead to your partner becoming defensive. If you start a sentence with “I”, you are helping yourself move away from a critical statement. 
  • Describe what is happening without judgment
    • Focus on describing what you observed without judgment and without evaluation. Focus on objective facts.
  • Describe what you want in a positive manner 
    • This is the moment where you get to state what you wish or desire. It is extremely important that you say what you want, instead of what you don’t want. It is not possible for your partner to read your mind, so it is crucial to state what you want so that your partner has a chance to actually understand your desires. 
  • Be Polite 
    • The fourth step in Gentle Start-Up is to make sure that you are being polite, as being polite will make it more likely that your request will be listened to and be responded to in a positive manner. Try to use “please””
  • Be Appreciative
    • Your partner will respond more positively if they know that you are seeing what they are doing right. If in the past, your partner has done something the way that you wanted, you can be specific and name it. 

Examples of Contempt and a more effective antidote 

  • Contemptuous statement: “I can’t believe you didn’t make me dinner. I would NEVER do that. You are just such a selfish person”
    • Antidote: “I feel really tired after work. Is there any chance you could also make me a plate of food when you make yourself dinner?”
  • Contemptuous statement: “I would never be late to YOUR events”
    • Antidote: “I’m feeling really hurt that you were so late to this event that was so important to me. I know I do that sometimes too, but I would really appreciate an apology”
  • Contemptuous statement: “You forgot to pick up groceries, again. I would never be as irresponsible as you”.
    • Antidote: “When you don’t pick up groceries I feel like you aren’t prioritizing the relationship and that hurts me. Would you be able to get them tomorrow”.

Building a Culture of Appreciation

Using Gentle Start-Up is the skill to counter contempt. However, cultivating a culture of appreciation will also be beneficial for both members of the couple. It’s crucial to be able to slow down and notice the positive things that your partner is doing in order to not only focus on the negative things which can help you get out of negative sentiment override, which is when you only see the negative things in spite of any evidence to the contrary.  

One way to do this is take a few moments each night to share a moment with your partner about something that you are grateful about that they did. Make sure that the praise that is being given is heartfelt and genuine.  

An example is “I really appreciate your smile every time I walk through the door”.

Another way to build a culture of appreciation is to express fondness and admiration. Look for the positive qualities of your partner in different spaces, interactions, and settings. 

An example is “I really admire your confidence in your work presentations”. 

What if my relationship needs more support?

If you would like more support on how to identify the four horsemen and strengthen your relationship, please reach out to me, Dr. Hannah Gilfix. Using the Gottman Method, I can work with you and your partner to strengthen and rebuild the friendship in your relationship, learn how to use more effective communication strategies, and figure out how to manage conflicts that seem to never go away.

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