The Four Horsemen Blog Series – #2 Contempt


Welcome to the Four Horsemen Blog Series. This is the second of four posts in this series.

Be sure to read the first post for an introduction and overview of the series. Additionally, you will want to learn all about the first horseman – criticism.

The Second Horseman – Contempt

Contempt is traditionally defined as the feeling that a person is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.

Although contempt is the second horseman, it is the greatest predictor of divorce. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Didn’t you just read the definition of contempt?

If you feel as though your partner is beneath you and not worthy of consideration, your relationship is in serious trouble.

You can recognize contempt in the following ways:

  • Insults and Name-Calling – “You’re such a bitch and you’re so ugly! I don’t know why I married you!”
  • Hostile Humor – (wife laughing to guests at a party) “Yeah, he actually thought that he would pass his class on ethics. He’s so sleazy and such a liar, he had no chance.”
  • Mockery – (partner replying to ‘I love you’) “Yeah, sure, you really love me so
  • Body Language – eye rolling, sneering, and curling upper lip.

Additionally, when contempt has settled into your relationship, you begin to forget the positive qualities of your partner – especially during conflict.


Quiz: Are You Contemptuous?

Take this quiz soon after an argument or disagreement with your partner when your actions and feelings are fresh on your mind. Or think about the last argument you had and recall it with as much detail as possible. Answer YES or NO for each of the following 26 questions.

1) When we were discussing an issue in our marriage, I couldn’t think of much of anything I admired about my partner.

2) When I got upset I could see glaring faults in my partner’s personality.

3) I just don’t respect some of the things my partner does.

4) I tried to point out ways in which my partner was inadequate in a particular situation.

5) I found it hard to have much pride in my partner’s qualities.

6) During the discussion I found myself putting my partner down.

7) There’s not a whole lot to look up to in the way my partner goes about things.

8) My spouse can be pretty arrogant at times.

9) When my partner got negative I found myself thinking of insulting things to say back.

10) My spouse can be pretty smug at times.

11) My spouse was too stubborn to compromise.

12) When my partner was upset with me I wanted to turn the tables and counterattack.

13) I can’t help feeling that there’s a lot of stupidity in my partner’s behavior.

14) It’s hard for me to see my partner’s point of view when I don’t agree.

15) I often have no respect for my partner when we are discussing an issue.

16) I just get fed up with all the negativity.

17) I felt disgusted by my partner’s attitudes.

18) My spouse can be pretty stupid at times.

19) I disapprove of my partner’s behavior.

20) My spouse can be pretty inept at times.

21) It was hard to respect my partner when he or she was being that incompetent.

22) When my partner is upset with me I think of all the ways I’ve been let down in this marriage.

23) My spouse can be very selfish.

24) I often feel a sense of righteous indignation when my partner is expressing something negative.

25) When I get dumped on I think of ways to get even.

26) When I see a glaring fault in my partner I can’t recall my partner’s positive qualities.

Scoring: If you answered YES to more than 7 items you are probably a good candidate for using contempt.

Credit: This quiz is featured in the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman, PhD.


How Did You Do?

In the previous post I told you not to worry if your quiz results indicated that you were a bit critical. This quiz is a different story. Sometimes our criticism will come across in a contemptuous way. After all, we are human and we get moody sometimes. But having a large dose of contempt can wreak havoc on your relationship. If it turns out that you are contemptuous with your partner, there is great cause for concern.

You may be wondering how contempt differs from criticism. Criticism becomes contempt when you intend to insult your partner and you breach over into psychological abuse.

Remember that contempt is the most dangerous of the four horsemen and is highly predictive of divorce. If the increased risk of divorce is not enough, couples who exhibit contempt toward one another have a higher likelihood of suffering from colds, the flu, and other infectious illnesses. Looking for a cure? Keep reading…


The Antidote to Contempt

Building a culture of appreciation and respect with (and for) your partner is the best remedy for contempt.

You may be wondering, “How do I build a culture of appreciation and respect? This sounds good and all, but I need something more concrete.”

Start small by viewing conflict with your spouse in a different way. What are you thinking in the heat of the moment? Is proving your point your main agenda? Are you attempting to prove that you are superior to your partner?

Having these motives will get you nowhere and significantly damage your relationship. After all, who would want to work together with someone to resolve a problem if you knew that person viewed you as inadequate or worthless?

Instead, build on the technique of the gentle, or softened, start up that you learned in the previous post as the antidote to criticism. After all, contempt is just a souped up version of criticism.

Come to your partner with specific complaints while refraining from attacking their character. Express admiration for your partner, even when discussing differences. Additionally, you will want to be able to express your own feelings and needs to your partner.

An example of this may be, “I’m very concerned about our finances, and I need to know that our children will be taken care of. We both work so hard, you especially. I would hate to see all that we’ve worked for be spent on frivolous things with nothing to show for it. Would you be willing to sit down with me to come up with a plan to ease my fears about the future?”

If this were contempt, it may have been expressed as, “You are so wreckless with money! I didn’t know I married such a loser who doesn’t care about the future of his family!”

A good way to gauge your progress on eliminating contempt from your relationship is to see if you are able to identify positives about your partner in the midst of a disagreement. It’s okay if it takes time. Just keep practicing. You should at least be able to acknowledge your partner’s positive qualities after you two have cooled down.

However, if you allow your brain to continue simmering negative thoughts about your partner long after the fight is over, this is a huge red flag. If you value your relationship and want to make positive progress, it may be time to invest in a couples therapist to help navigate you through the choppy waters. Reviving your relationship is very doable, especially with the help of a trained professional.

Hopefully you have enjoyed learning about the second horseman and how to keep it at bay. Next up in the series will be the third horseman, Defensiveness.


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