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Criticism and contempt

Among the most important and well known of relationship expert John Gottman’s findings is a set of communication habits humorously dubbed “The Four Horsemen” (from the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who herald the end of the world!!). These are criticism and contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. This blog looks at criticism and contempt:

Gottman’s research has helped us predict which couples are more likely to build long-term, satisfying relationships and which couples will build relationships that are conflictual, unhappy, and lead toward break up or divorce. The research has found that it is not differences in background, age, or even opinions that make or break a relationship. Rather, it’s behaviours, particularly regarding how people communicate, that influence the health of a relationship the most. 

Dr. Gottman and his team published results showing that they were able to predict relationship break up with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What they particularly noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up separating whereas couples who used what they called “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs, stayed together. 

1. What does criticism look like?

Criticising your partner is different to voicing a complaint about a specific issue. Criticism is more of an attack on your partner’s character, who they are – that they are somehow flawed.  Criticism can leave partners feeling attacked and hurt and usually take the form of “you” statements, like, “you never listen to me,” “you never help out around the house”, “you don’t care about me at all”..

Why do we do it?

We often don’t mean to make our partner feel like this – often, underneath this criticism, is a personal need—we need our partner to listen more, we need them to take on more responsibility, we need to not have to nag them to do the dishes. And when those needs aren’t met, we feel bitter and hold grudges. 

This criticism can escalate when each partner starts criticising one another more frequently and intensely, as a way to get back at the other for their harsh criticisms, encouraging an unhealthy pattern of one-upmanship. 

The harsh start-up

Many couples begin to discuss conflicts or subjects with what Gottman calls a harsh start up, which is just another term for criticism. For example, “You are so selfish, you only care about yourself.”  We tend to point out our partners flaws than express how we feel and what we need in the relationship because that requires vulnerability on our part. 

The difference between a complaint and a criticism – an example

  • Complaint: “I was scared when you were so late home last night and didn’t call me. I thought we had agreed that we would do that for each other.”
  • Criticism: “You never think about how I feel. I don’t believe you are that forgetful, you’re just selfish. ”

If you find that you and your partner are critical of each other, don’t assume your relationship is doomed to fail. The problem with criticism is that, when it becomes pervasive, it paves the way for the other, far deadlier horseman (contempt) to follow – see next paragraph. 

  1. Contempt

The second horseman is contempt. Gottman’s research showed that it is the biggest predictor of relationship break up than all the others. When we communicate in this state, we are truly unkind and nasty —we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names, and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.

Because while criticism might signal a bottled-up frustration or unmet need, contempt signals long-term resentment. This can erode the respect and admiration we have for our partner. 

An example of criticism vs contempt

Using our above example, here’s a quick reminder of what criticism might look like: 

“You know the children aren’t allowed to watch TV unless they’ve finished their homework. You always let them do whatever they want!”

And here’s what the contempt version looks like: 

“Do you just not care about your own children? About their education? About me?! All you care about is yourself and your stupid work emails. You are pathetic!”

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! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner—which come to a head when the perpetrator attacks the accused from a position of relative superiority.

My next blog looks at the other two horsemen: defensiveness and stonewalling. 

Favourite resources 

These are some of my favourite writers and speakers about communication:

  1. Say What You Mean – A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication –  book by Oren Jay Sofer 
  2. Rick Hanson – a series of excellent podcasts he has made with his son Forest about all kinds of human relationships . Rick is a highly respected psychologist and author.   
  3. Dr John Gottman – world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing whereas couples who used “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs stayed together.His excellent website contains numerous videos and blogs about his work and findings.
  4. Esther Perel “Where should we begin?” Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her TED talks have generated more than 20 million views and she is also the host    of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?    3 TEDtalks. See also: 


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541

See also: CommunicationCommunication StylesHealthy and Unhealthy Relationships