In John Gottman’s book, “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail“, he talks about defensiveness as one of the problems in marriage. Defensiveness is often comes up in marriage counseling and couples counseling. It is a block to good communication. Without a non-defensive attitude, people feel unloved, unappreciated and lonely in their relationships.
In essence, defensiveness is self-protection, a natural response to ward off a perceived attack. For example:
” It wasn’t my fault”
“It was your fault”
“You always get tense around my mom”
“I do not”. “If you’d stand up for me when she criticizes me, I wouldn’t get so tense.”
“You don’t listen to me”
“Well, you don’t listen to me”
Of course, the major problem with defensiveness is that it obstructs communication in relationships. Rather than understanding each other’s perspective you spend your discussions defending yourselves. Nothing gets resolved, so the conflict continues to escalate and more discussions characterized by attack and defensiveness occur. To see whether you or your spouse/ partner is overly defensive, take the following self-test, preferably soon after a disagreement.
SELF-TEST: HOW DEFENSIVE ARE YOU?
- When my partner complains, I feel unfairly picked on.
- I feel misunderstood.
- I don’t feel that I get credit for all the positive things I do.
- What went wrong was actually not that much my responsibility
- To avoid blame, I have to explain why and how the problem arose.
- I feel unfairly attacked when my partner is being negative.
- When my partner complains, I realize that I also have a set of complaintsthat need to be heard.
- My partner’s negativity gets too intense, too out of proportion.
- My partner is too touchy, and gets his/ her feelings hurt too easily.
- There is some truth to my partner’s complaints, but it is not the whole truth.
- When my partner complains, I usually think, “I am innocent of these charges”.
- When my partner complains, I feel I have to “ward off” these attacks.
- I feel obligated to deny the complaints against me that are inaccurate.
- It seems that all my partner can do is find fault with me.
- during a hot argument, I keep thinking of ways to retaliate.
A “Yes” to several of these implies that you may be set up for a defensive stance.
The first step toward breaking out of defensiveness is to no longer see your partner’s words as an attack but as information. Your partner is trying to tell you something. Try to empathize with your partner. This is hard to do but it is possible and it effects are miraculous. Research shows that if you are genuinely open and receptive when your partner is expecting a defensive response, your partner is less likely to criticize you or react contemptuously when disagreements arise. Staying grounded may also help you feel more positive about yourself and your own self esteem, knowing that you are contributing to de-escalating an argument.
Of course, this change won’t occur overnight. But if you are consistently non-defensive, your spouse will finally get the happy message and your marriage and relationships will benefit tremendously.