The Second Destroyer of Relational Communication: Contempt

Recap: We began this relational blog series looking at communication. What it is, and what it isn’t. And perhaps even more pertinent – what communicative patterns destroy relationships. The Gottman Institute has studied these patterns for over 40 years – developing a form of couples therapy that is both evidenced-based and widely accessible. Thousands of couples utilize the relational and communication tools offered by the Gottmans – even if they aren’t in couples therapy. In fact, the communication tools of couples therapy, as taught by the Gottmans, has grown to encompass other forms of relationships – not just couples – including  parenting, professional, and filial relationships. “Couples” therapy isn’t always about romantic couples – any human social unit composed of at least two people is considered a couple. This means whenever you interact with at least one other person, in the moment or situation, you are a couple. This is where the Gottman Method of couples therapy becomes a lifesaver. We all want to avoid those apocalyptic moments – whether with our spouse, our partner, or our boss, or child. 

 Let’s dive in deeper into our exploration of the “Four Horsemen” of apocalyptic communication.  Today we will look at the 2nd Horseman: Contempt. Contempt is the most destructive of the Four Horseman – in couples therapy, as in any relationship. Contempt destroys connection. Contempt is the antithesis of relationship and relational communication, both within couples therapy and in all interactions with others.

 Contempt and Communication:

 When we communicate with contempt – we are mean, we belittle, we devalue – we make the person small to gain power, get revenge, communicate a grudge, or even take pleasure in making the other suffer through our words. I don’t think much explanation is needed as to why this Horseman is so destructive. We can’t communicate relationally if our words are venomous, containing poison, with the aim to hurt the other person. We all have negative emotions and feel contempt, want to lash out and gain power when we feel hurt or threatened, but when we communicate consistently with contempt, we take ourselves out of being a “couple” and relationally defined in terms of persecutor and persecuted. Couples therapy cannot work if contempt colors a relational interaction. Contempt conveys: “I don’t want to heal or work things out – I want to hurt you.”

 Contempt can be felt in relational communication – wordlessly – it is the look and feel of moral superiority and sometimes literally being looked down on. 

 And, according to the Gottmans, contempt is the greatest single predictor of divorce!

 Let’s make this a little more concrete, with an example of contempt, from Ellie Lisitsa of the Gottman Institute:

 You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?” 

 These words are truly contemptuous! Contempt also affects our immune systems.  According to Ellie Lisitsa: 

Research even shows that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others due to weakened immune systems!”

 We see how the first horseman leads to its sibling – contempt – and explore that in our next follow-up post as we continue learning how to communicate and how not to. I look forward to our next time – as we explore couples therapy and communication. 

 Contempt must be eliminated for couples therapy to work.  If a member of a couple wants to proceed in therapy but cannot let go of contempt, then individual therapy is required for that person to heal the hurts and past issues that are fueling the contempt. 

 If you are communicating with contempt, verbally or nonverbally, or, if you are constantly feeling ‘contemptible’ in the relationship – then you need to address the issue immediately, for your own well-being and the well-being of others. 

 In the next blog, we will continue to explore the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in relationships and communications, according to the Gottman Institute’s method of Couples Therapy. We will continue our journey with the 3rd Horseman: Defensiveness. I hope to see you there

 All information is taken from the Gottman Institute and Training, as well as the Gottman Institute Blog, featuring Ellie Lisitsa, found at:

Awakened Path Counseling proudly provides quality transpersonal and traditional psychotherapy, at their offices in Middlesex County, New Jersey, and online. Their experienced therapists specialize in serving children, teens and adults. The experienced clinicians at Awakened Path Counseling are passionate about their holistic approach to mental health, addressing your emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual needs.

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