The Four Horsemen and the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy – Part Two

It’s often said that it’s easier to fall in love than stay in love. Relationships take work, and when a couple is experiencing hardship in the relationship, that work can feel overwhelming. A rejuvenation of connection, romance, and respect can seem unattainable. What would you say if you were asked why couples break up? Most people, when asked this question, state that arguing is the cause of most breakups. John Gottman’s research has shown, however, that the act of arguing or disagreeing isn’t actually to blame for relational dissolution. Arguing, when done effectively, can actually be helpful for relationships and promotes team work and support in the relationship. According to Gottman, engaging in contempt is the most damaging behavior when it comes to intimate relationships.

Contempt is the second of Gottman’s Four Horsemen. As a reminder, the Four Horsemen are communication pitfalls that couples utilize when disagreeing and arguing. They contribute significantly to relational strife and discontent. Contempt, specifically, is considered the worst of the Four Horsemen and the most destructive relational behavior. In Gottman’s four decades of research, contempt stands out as the number one predictor of divorce.

So, what does contempt look like when utilized in romantic relationships? Simply put, contempt is cruel and unforgiving. It consists of body language such as eye rolling and sneers, as well as verbal attacks including, sarcasm, mocking, and name-calling. Contempt is intense disrespect and sends the message that your partner is of little or no importance to you. Contempt creates deep and lasting wounds that become challenging to heal. According to the Gottman Institute:
“Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, and it arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self. Inevitably, contempt leads to more conflict—particularly dangerous and destructive forms of conflict—rather than to reconciliation. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with them and that you’re condescending and acting as their superior.”

Fortunately, like all of the Four Horseman, contempt comes with an antidote. The antidote for contempt is two-fold and consists of a short-term approach, as well as a long-term approach.

• Short-term Approach to Contempt: Stating Feelings and Needs
It’s often easier to be angry at our partner than take responsibility for our own emotions. Taking responsibility for our own emotions is vulnerability in action and can often feel uncomfortable. But vulnerability is the foundation of any strong relationship and is imperative to relational connection and success. Couples often expect their partner to be a mind-reader and to predict their needs with little or no communication. It’s unfair to expect our partner to respond to our emotional and physical needs in almost perfect fashion. Individuals who own their feelings and their needs and communicate them appropriately to their partner are fostering a relational culture that is mature, loving, and respectful.

Remember when expressing feelings and needs to your partner, avoid “you” statements and utilize “I” statements instead. “You” statements instantly place blame on the other person, and defensiveness is usually the result. “I” statements on the other hand, promote collaboration between partners, which in turn promotes relational growth and connection. You can read more on effective communication in last month’s post on the Four Horseman by clicking here.

• Long-term Approach to Contempt: Building a Culture of Fondness and Admiration
When couples find themselves utilizing contempt, it can be extremely challenging to call upon feelings and thoughts of admiration and fondness. But remember, couples fall in love for a reason. In the beginning, fondness and admiration are abundant in a relationship and couples benefit greatly from recalling the feelings they felt early on. Positive thoughts produce positive feelings, which produce positive actions.

If it seems like your positive feelings about your partner and the relationship are too far away and unreachable, try this simple exercise. Take a paper and pen and write down everything that initially attracted you to your partner. As you focus on the positive aspects of your partner’s personality, pay attention to the way you are feeling. Most likely, you will feel lighter and calmer and this will hopefully inspire you to think in more positive ways as your move forward. Additionally, couples can engage in exchanging happy memories to foster a more positive relational culture. Recalling happy memories builds connection and assists in focusing on the many positives times the couple has experienced, rather than focusing on the challenging or hurtful times. Even happy couples get annoyed with each other now and then. But successful couples are able to access happy memories created together and can easily recall the reasons they were attracted to each other in the first place.

Showing kindness and thoughtfulness towards your partner is another way to foster a culture of fondness and admiration in the relationship. This can be something as simple as offering a hug, offering a compliment, or sending a quick, yet thoughtful text. Helping around the house or planning a date night are additional examples. These ideas seem simple enough, but it really can be difficult to engage in selflessness, when contempt has been the norm in the relationship. Once the relationship has become contemptuous, rebuilding a kind and loving culture is difficult. It can’t be done overnight and requires small steps. Start with something that feels natural for you and offer it to your partner with no expectations. A sincere apology for past behavior can go a long way in bridging the divide caused by contempt.

As damaging to a relationship that contempt can be, it’s never too late to attempt to make relational repairs. If you are experiencing relational problems and would like to learn more about the Gottman Method, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando mental health counselors.

Lisitsa, E. (2013, May 13). The Four Horsemen: Contempt. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-contempt/


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