Let me explain this to you because you’re clearly not getting it: You—are—a—failure. You’ve failed at your job. You’ve failed as a parent. You’re failing in this marriage. Oh, and if I had written that last statement you’d see that y-o-u-‘-r-e means “you are.” Y-o-u-r tells someone what belongs to you, like, the problems in our marriage are y-o-u-r your fault! Remember that and maybe you won’t look like such an idiot on Facebook like you always do.

It should not surprise anyone to learn that relationship researcher John Gottman and his colleagues have identified contempt as the most powerful predictor of relationship dissolution. Contempt is just that awful. Contempt is conveyed in “a statement made from a position of superiority that often includes sarcasm, direct insults, or name-calling, or something more subtle (e.g., correcting someone’s grammar when he or she is angry)” (Gottman & Gottman, 2008, p. 145). Even though we are quick to admit the problems caused by contempt in relationships, if we are honest, most of us will confess to having said something contemptuous in the past.

In this second blog post in The Four Horsemen of the Relational Apocalypse, we will examine contempt and how to avoid using it when arguing with our partner.

Contempt Comes Naturally

Contempt is an attack. It is a way of hitting without having to throw a punch and allows us to inflict an injury without lifting a finger. It is deviously satisfying in the moment and devastating to a relationship. In a twisted, terrible way, contempt is one of the ways we inherently try to tell others that we are hurt when we are overwhelmed by anger. As with all of The Four Horsemen, contempt is a response to heightened, uncontrolled negative emotions that are stirred up by conflict. When humans become emotionally overwhelmed in a fight, we default into a fight-or-flight mode that leads us to attack our partners (usually verbally), defend ourselves, or run away. Outside of acts of physical abuse, expressions of contempt are the worst of the untamed and unhelpful fight-or-flight responses to relationship conflict.

Contempt is so destructive to relationships that it should never be used when we argue with our partner. Gottman’s research has shown that “masters” of relationships may use low levels of the other four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling) during arguments, but they rarely ever show contempt. The “disasters” of relationships, however, regularly express contempt when they fight. Because it is difficult for partners to move past statements of contempt, arguments become unproductive when it is used and couples rarely resolve their problems.

Replace Contempt With Appreciation and Respect

In order for relationships to heal after a couple has fallen into a pattern of using contempt during fights, Gottman says that partners need to establish a “culture of appreciation and admiration” in their relationship. Building this culture of appreciation replaces contempt with respect. When partners appreciate one another, they are able to be honest with their complaints during arguments without a conversation devolving into exchanges of name-calling, blame, and character assassination. This means that in order for conflict to be productive, partners need to get in the habit of regularly expressing gratitude and love both verbally and non-verbally (e.g., kisses, hugs, sex, thank you notes, acts of service, etc.). When couples take the time to express love for one another during their fights, they feel respected.

One of the most telling of Gottman’s discoveries is that during conflict, stable couples showed 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction compared to 0.8 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction for unstable couples. Many of the couples identified as masters of relationship had positive to negative interaction ratios that were far greater than 5:1. When arguments themselves are overwhelmingly positive, couples do not become emotionally overwhelmed and are much more likely to resolve conflict.

Making a Different Kind of Argument

We need to remember that all couples fight. People do not always see eye to eye and even the masters of relationships have disagreements. Conflict does not have to lead to relationship dissatisfaction or a break-up. If we take the time to build a culture of appreciation, if we learn how to avoid using criticism and contempt in arguments, fights take on a different tone entirely:

Know that I love you, baby, and that I am committed to figuring this out. I want us to support one another. I want us to work together to raise our children. I don’t want our marriage to fail. Make no mistake, I am really pissed right now, but that doesn’t change the fact that I love you and care for you and want to be married to you. I just don’t want us to have the marriage that we have now. Our marriage has sucked for the both of us for a long time. I want it to get better. I think we both need to make a lot of changes. Can we talk about the things that we need to change? I love you too much not to at least understand where you’re coming from.