What causes contempt in relationships

Any conversation between us explodes. It’s like, “Who can be underestimated?”

He looks at me with those fat eyes that say: You can talk anything you want. I do not care. It’s so condescending.

I almost laugh at my partner’s defensiveness. I know it will escalate the conflict, but I can’t help it!

She rolled her eyes and made that face look like she was tired. I can’t stand it. Especially when I try to explain it, it makes me feel rejected.

“Don’t start your emotional drama again.”

If you can relate to these statements, you may be experiencing contempt in your relationship. It’s like checkmate to any constructive discussion.

About contempt

Contempt comes from one place of superiority and makes the other feel inferior. Deep down, it comes from a feeling of being underappreciated and unrecognized in the relationship. It can take the form of verbal or nonverbal language, which can include sarcasm, teasing, and facial gestures. Often, partners are unaware of what they said or did, especially gestures of contempt, such as a roll of the eye or a laugh that angered their partner. Whether in words or behaviors, contempt increases the conflict situation. This is no longer the subject that started the discussion, but an attack on a person’s dignity, almost like saying, “You are insignificant.”

The four horsemen of the apocalypse

Dr.’s research John Gottman revealed four patterns of conflict antagonistic to marital stability: contempt, criticism, defense, and obligation. A process of conflict showed that primary emotions such as anger, sadness, worry, etc., carried the Four Knights when they were fired or responded negatively. Particularly in heterosexual couples, conflicting behaviors of contempt, defensiveness, criticism (especially that of the wife), and destruction (significantly that of the husband) predict dissolution. And contempt was the most destructive pattern of all.

Are you happy or unhappy in your relationship?

The results of Dr. Gottman points out the discrimination between happy and unhappy relationships in the conflict model.

  1. Expression of negative emotions: Unhappy couples expressed more negative emotions such as anger or disappointment than happy couples. At the same time, it was observed that unhappy couples were less positive / neutral to negative affect than happy couples. Specifically, unhappy women were coded as showing more negative emotions, and unhappy husbands preferred non-emotional interaction. During happy marriages, spouses turned to the negative emotions of others as a need for attention.
  1. Reciprocity of negative affections: Unhappy couples corresponded to negative effects with negativity during interactions. Reciprocity of negative affect can be in kind or in escalation. In the first, the affect of negativity of lower intensity as anger was met with anger. In the latter case, anger was met with a more intense negative effect from the Four Knights, such as criticism or contempt. Over time, it caused dissatisfaction in couples.
  1. Canceling the negative feeling: The accumulation of negative affective states from past arguments also characterized unhappy couples. And these accumulated negative feelings controlled the current conversations as the partners perceived and reacted to the neutral or positive effects with negativity. However, happy couples had accumulated a positive outlook towards their partners. Unhappy couples showed a 1: 1 positive and negative affect ratio, while happy couples had a 5: 1 ratio during the conflict and a 20: 1 percentage outside of conflict discussions.
  1. The four knights: Dissatisfaction was most pronounced when the couples resolved the conflict. In cisgender couples, unhappy women showed more contempt, a defensive attitude, and criticism. In comparison, unhappy men showed contempt, defensive attitude, and stone walls.
  1. Emotional disconnection: Over time, unhappy couples became emotionally detached and began parallel lives. While unhappy couples showing four gentlemen tend to divorce in six years on average, emotionally detached couples, who avoided conflict, divorced in sixteen years.

Contempt in happy and unhappy couples

In a longitudinal study of heterosexual married couples, a woman’s contempt markedly predicted marital separation. The wife’s perception of the severity of marital problems was negatively associated with her positive affective expressions. And if the wife believed that the problems were not solved with her husband, she was related to her expressions of contempt. Husband’s expressions of contempt were positively associated with her belief that problems could not be solved and her flooding.

The care of contempt

Smooth the boot

The escalation of the conflict from the neutral affect of one couple to the negative affect of the other is called the beginning. Softening occurs when the deepest vulnerabilities behind harsh emotions (such as anger and contempt) are shared in a soft tone. For example, share this: “I feel annoyed and stupid when my actions are corrected, and what I need is your recognition and faith in me” instead of contempt and criticism. It would allow the other partner to better understand and empathize with the concern.

Appreciation and affection

A replacement for positive feeling acts like a warm blanket in times of conflict. Couples who invest positively in non-conflicting relationship hours with shared admiration and gratitude tend to easily give the benefit of the doubt to the couple’s negative emotions. They may look at it with a positive outlook, such as, “It must be hard for her with two kids in her hand. Let me see how I can help.”

Final thought

It is not negative emotions and conflicts, but staying away from the Four Riders and investing positively with affection what goes a long way and distinguishes happy couples from unhappy ones.

Want more help keeping the four gentlemen out of your relationship? Join Gottman Certified Therapists Faith Drew and George Bitar as they present at the upcoming Art and Science of Love virtual workshop. You will learn how to prevent destructive patterns of behavior such as contempt from hurting you and your partner. Register today!


Carstensen, LL, Gottman, JM and Levenson, RW (1995). Emotional behavior in a long-term marriage. Psychology and Aging, 10 (1), 140.

Gottman, JM (1993). A theory of dissolution and marital stability. Journal of Family Psychology, 7 (1), 57.

Gottman, JM, Coan, J., Carrere, S. and Swanson, C. (1998). Prediction of happiness and marital stability from the interactions of the newlyweds. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 5-22.

Gottman, JM and Krokoff, LJ (1989). Interaction and marital satisfaction: a longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57 (1), 47.

Gottman, J., Levenson, R. and Woodin, E. (2001). Facial expressions during marital conflict. Journal of Family Communication, 1 (1), 37-57.

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