Contempt is the second horseman in Gottman’s four Horsemen model. Contempt refers to disrespectful behavior, such as name-calling, mocking, sarcastic jokes, ridicule, mimicking and specific body languages like eye rolling. It is a very harmful communication pattern that looks down on the other person. This form of communication can make the other person feel insignificant and despised. In fact, contempt can be worse than criticism as it openly insults your partner. It attacks the other person, verbally or nonverbally, and adversely affects their self-identity by emotionally abusing or insulting them. It may put you on a higher ground in the relationship, but it’s a sign of blatant disrespect for your spouse or partner. “Contempt goes far beyond criticism. While criticism attacks your partner’s character, contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over them,” explains The Gottman Institute.
According to a 2017 study, “Contempt is a powerful emotion.” Research also shows that prolonged contempt is closely associated with breakup-related distress. It has also been observed that contempt is linked with intimate partner violence (IPV). One 2019 study found that distressed communication, such as anger or contempt, served as some of the most common self-reported motivations for intimate partner violence among both male and female perpetrators. The study adds “We found that negative communication in the form of contempt was not only associated with one’s own physical assault perpetration, but it was also associated with physical assault perpetration of the other partner.”
Contempt can force you to overlook your partner’s positive qualities and even make you doubt their worth in your life. It is perhaps the most destructive horseman in the model. It was considered as the “sulfuric acid for love” by Dr. Gottman. Contempt shows that you believe “I am superior to you in every single way and you are nothing in front of me.” The Gottman Institute adds that it can be poisonous for any romantic relationship as “it conveys disgust and superiority, especially moral, ethical, or characterological.”
Another problematic horseman in Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse model is defensiveness. It allows us to protect our sense of self and self-esteem by playing a victim and dismantling a potential blame or attack. According to the The Gottman Institute, “Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that its perceived effect is… blame.” It empowers us to defuse an accusation or censure against us. We often tend to be naturally defensive when arguing with our partners, especially when we are in long-term relationships. However, this is a toxic trait that can lead to dissolution. In this state of mind, we seek and present justifications, rationalizations and even excuses when we feel attacked and try to put the blame on the other person. However, it is an unjustifiable reaction to criticism which prevents us from accepting our own mistakes and taking responsibility for our actions.
Sadly, this communication pattern is more harmful for the relationship and is never effective in protecting your self-esteem. It can even make the argument worse in case the other partner becomes defensive as well. “Defensive denial may be a salient type of maladaptive communication that erodes relationship stability over time because it may lead to more caustic conflict-escalating behaviors,” explains a 2013 study. Research also shows that both men and women are likely to become defensive in relationships.
Stonewalling, the final element in Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse model refers to the act of distancing and withdrawing yourself from interacting with your partner. It is a metaphorical wall that you create as an emotional avoidance strategy. You may act busy, become non-responsiveness to their attempts to communicate, avoid eye contact, give monosyllabic answers, or engage in emotionally & physically distracting behaviors in the relationship. The “silent treatment” is perhaps one of the most common examples of stonewalling. “Stonewalling can sometimes result when the first three “horsemen” accumulate and become overwhelming. Stonewalling is especially destructive to relationships because it can make one’s partner feel abandoned and rejected,” explains the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at UC Berkeley. It is primarily used as a reaction to contempt and can make the person withdraw from the interaction. Instead of expressing their opinions or engaging in a healthy argument, the person uses stonewalling to engage in distracting behaviors. When the first three horsemen in Gottman’s theory become too difficult to cope with for one partner, they may resort to this strategy in order to protect their own self-esteem and mental state.