Most people, when asked what they believe is the biggest or predictor of divorce and separation, will respond “anger” or “conflict”. Arguments are often thought of as the cause of a relationship breaking down. However, that is not what the research shows. In fact, the reason is much more insidious, hurtful, and damaging than this.

In four decades of research, Dr Gottman, of the Gottman Institute, has found that the No1 predictor of divorce is contempt. Really, it’s not surprising when you consider some definitions of contempt:

  • The feeling that a person is worthless or beneath you
  • Disregard for something that should be considered

Everything can be borne except contempt – Voltaire

Contempt is synonymous with disgust and is the complete opposite of kindness and generosity. Dr Solomon of the University of Texas, in his book The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life argues that the differences between anger and contempt, are that anger is directed toward a perceived equal-status individual, whereas contempt is anger directed toward a perceived lower-status individual. As such, contempt is much more damaging than anger as it implies that your partner is less than you.

So what does contempt look like in a relationship?

You show contempt for your partner when you:

  • Roll your eyes
  • Mock them with sarcasm
  • Use hostile humour
  • Call them names
  • mimic them
  • sneer

It might look something like this …

Imagine Peter coming in the door from work, and Susan asking him to watch the kids while she has a quick shower. When he tells her he has been working all day and just wants to crash in front of the TV, she loses it:

You’re tired? I’ve been running around like a madwoman all day after these three, and you’re tired? But of course, sit down in front of the TV like a zombie again. It’s all your good for anyway”

Contempt can be most damaging to a relationship when it is witnessed by others.

Consider Kim and Brad who are out with their friends at dinner. Kim asks the waiter for another glass of wine and Brad sneers:

“Oh yeah great idea, because you haven’t had enough already”

Sounds pretty bad right? Don’t be disheartened. There are effective evidence-based skills and tools to tackle contempt in relationships. I talk about the antidote to contempt in an upcoming blog.

If you are having trouble in your relationship, call us today to see how we can help you and your partner get back on track.


“She said it quite correctly; there was nothing offensive in the quiet politeness of her voice; but following his high note of enthusiasm, her voice struck a tone that seemed flat and deadly in its indifference—as if the two sounds mingled into an audible counterpoint around the melodic thread of her contempt.” ― Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead