Of all of the 4 Horsemen, Dr. Gottman refers to contempt as the deadliest of them all. Dr.
Gottman calls it the most destructive behavior in relationships, the sulfuric acid to relationships, an important sign that a relationship is in trouble, and the #1 predictor of divorce. Obviously contempt is something that needs to be eliminated from relationships ASAP!
What is contempt
Contempt comes in many forms, but the root of it is always the same. It stems from a feeling of being superior to your partner or better than your partner in some way. It is a form of looking down at your partner from a “one-up” position, meaning that you view yourself as being above them in some way and disrespecting them from that place. You may not even consciously be feeling above you partner, but it might be happening subconsciously. It might be that you feel more intellectual than them, or more knowledgeable about relationships than them, or more growth-oriented than them, or more articulate than them, or more spiritual than them, or more selfless than them, or more Christ-like than them, etc. There is a never ending list of ways that one spouse might feel better than their partner.
One can be more skilled in certain areas or have more knowledge about some things, but contempt is when that moves into a sense of superiority instead of a feeling of equality. Contempt is when you start to feel that your strengths in certain areas make you inherently better than your spouse and you feel some extent of disgust or disdain towards them for not viewing things like you do or approaching life like you do or just for being them. And then from that place of disgust or disdain, you make disrespectful expressions (like eye rolls), comments, or actions towards them. That is contempt. A big problem with contempt is that it automatically leads to very dysfunctional relationship behaviors. Often it leads to adversarial tactics, control tactics, saying hurtful things, or emotional disengagement to name a few. All of these will bring the other horsemen into the relationship so quickly, and then your relationship problems will rapidly multiply. It is no wonder that contempt is so poisonous to relationships!
Relationships will not be healthy and thriving in anything but a “same-as” position. This means that in order to thrive, you must view your partner as completely equal to you: equal in value, equal in being deserving of respect and consideration, and equal in deserving to be heard and understood. This feeling of equality will lead to much more generous, collaborative, and functional relationship behaviors. If you view your spouse as truly equal to you, you will treat them that way and you will want to be considerate and collaborative and respectful. Equality is an essential component of a thriving relationship and of intimacy and connection, which is why contempt is such a relationship-killer because it is a sign of inequality. You might be thinking that of course you don’t view your partner as less than you...but contempt has a way of creeping in and is often present without us realizing it. It can live in our blind spots! Contempt is easy to spot when it is more severe, but in its more subtle forms it might go undetected, all while leaving its poisonous trail behind.
The Spectrum of Contempt
Contempt exists along a spectrum from mild to severe. The milder end of contempt might look like sarcasm, fixing or correcting your partner’s statements or point of view, scoffing, or sighing in annoyance when your partner speaks. It can be so subtle that it can be communicated with body language only through a smirk or an eye roll (an eye roll is a pretty solid guarantee that contempt is present in the relationship). In fact, the people that specialize in the science of reading and coding facial expressions group contempt in with disgust or disapproval and it can show up in the face as a nose wrinkle or raising of the upper lip. You don’t even have to say anything to express contempt! Contempt in the middle of the spectrum might be mocking comments, harsh or biting remarks, and judging remarks whether done directly or passive-aggressively. On the more extreme side you might see behaviors of violence, whether that is verbal disdain/verbal attacks, name-calling, belittling, psychological or emotional abuse, and of course physical abuse.
Terry Real calls ALL contempt “psychologically violent” no matter how subtle or severe. Even milder forms of contempt are still psychologically violent because it is disrespecting a person verbally or through body language from a place of feeling above them. However, regardless of where one lies on the spectrum of contempt, it is still always unhealthy and harmful to relationships because it breeds such dysfunctional relationship patterns. There is no such thing as healthy contempt, beneficial contempt, or acceptable contempt. It all needs to be replaced with total equality and respect and treating each other as always deserving of being heard and understood and valued for who they are.
How It Might Show Up In A Mixed-Faith Marriage
In a mixed faith marriage contempt might look like annoyance, eye rolling or scoffing when your partner is talking about their views or desires, harsh sarcasm about their beliefs or choices, thinking that you need to help them “open their eyes'' to viewing things a different way, expressing either directly or passive aggressively that your views/opinions/knowledge/values/priorities are in some way better than theirs, making comments about their beliefs being foolish or naive or uneducated, and making judgemental statements about their perspective. It can look like statements of disgust and disdain for what is important to them and what they believe in, and feeling like you are on morally higher ground with your perspectives, views, and beliefs and therefore acting in disrespectful ways towards them from that place, even if you aren’t intentionally trying to be disrespectful.
What to do about Contempt
They key to getting rid of contempt is to bring yourself from a one-up position to a same-as position and there are multiple ways to do this. Dr. Gottman suggests building an atmosphere of fondness and admiration. Building a culture of fondness and admiration on a regular basis has two parts.
1)The first part involves expressing things you like about who your partner is. It sounds like saying things such as:
“I’m impressed by how you____”
“I really like how you are_____”
“I love how you are so ______”
2) The second part of creating a culture of fondness and admiration involves expressing appreciation. Telling your partner things you appreciate about them, or ways you are grateful to them on a regular basis is critical in creating a culture of fondness and admiration. It can be appreciation for the little day to day things that they do and also the bigger things that they do. Doing these things reminds you of all the good in your partner and brings you back down from your own high-horse to be reminded of all the things about your partner that you can admire so that you aren’t looking down on them from a one-up position. Instead you are seeing them eye to eye for the complex person that they are filled with strengths as well as struggles, same as you, and deserving of equal respect. They are no better than you and no less than you, and they are deserving of total respect in ALL forms.
Creating a culture of fondness and admiration takes intentional effort. It is not something that we naturally do because of the way that our human brains are wired. We have something called a negativity bias, which means that we have a tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily, but we also will dwell on these perceived negative events more than we dwell on positive events. In essence, if we aren’t putting in intentional effort to counter this bias, we will always see the negative in things more than we will see the positive. For a relationship to thrive and for contempt to be eliminated, we have to do the work to continuously counter that bias and see the good.
I might add my own suggestion to bring yourself back into a position of same-as rather than one-up in order to get rid of contempt. I highly recommend the book “The Values Factor” by Dr. John Demartini for helping people learn to see how their partner’s values and priorities are truly not better than or worse than their own. It is a fantastic book for that purpose. For me personally this book has done wonders to help me really see people from a same-as position, especially my spouse. I think his framework of values is critical to help develop fondness and admiration around the things that might drive us nuts about our spouse when it comes to faith differences. I put this book on my list of must-reads for any human being who is in relationship with another, but especially for mixed-faith marriages even though it isn’t even a relationship book!
Be intentional about cultivating daily awareness around the 4 Horsemen
Unfortunately, contempt tends to creep into relationships whenever there are differences between two people. Differences in viewpoints, values, beliefs, ways of approaching the world quickly can move people into feeling that their ways are better. The way that we sort people and treat people according to whether they are like us, or unlike us, is another aspect of how our brains are wired. Unfortunately we often have a lot working against us in our relationships just because of the way our brains are. However, the good news is that cultivating a daily practice to notice and get rid of any of these 4 Horsemen, contempt included, can alter the course of your relationship for the better.
“Step off the contempt conveyor belt, just stop indulging in it…this is part of learning to live a non-violent life. Full respect living is not dropping below respectful words or deeds to yourself or to others. This is called getting off of the contempt train.” -Terry Real