Defensive? Let Us Count The Ways

Note: This is the second of a three-part series.

However it is expressed, defensiveness is fundamentally an attempt to protect yourself and ward off a perceived attack.  Some people just aren’t aware of how defensive they are in their relationships with others.

Here are different ways people react defensively:

Denying responsibility.
No matter what your partner charges, you insist in no uncertain terms that you are not to blame.  If your partner complains that the house is always dirty, you respond that it’s not your fault because you were too busy.  If your wife says you hurt her feelings with some comments you made at the party, you reply that you didn’t say anything wrong.

Making excuses. You claim that external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way.  If your wife gets upset because you didn’t tell her you got a bonus at work, you respond:  “If I told you, you’d just spend it all.”

Cross-complaining. This is a grown-up version of “So’s your old man.”  You meet your partner’s complaint or criticism with an immediate complaint of your own, totally ignoring what your partner has said.  For example:

He:  I don’t like it that your sister comes over every Saturday
She:  Well, I don’t like it that you go to the gym every night.

Rubberman/Rubberwoman. Remember that old playground game: “I’m rubber, you’re glue.  Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you?”  In one move you manage to defend yourself from attack and blame your partner as well.  So if your partner says s/he found your behavior at the party rude, you immediately counter with “I’m rude?”  You’re the one who can’t even remember to send my mother a birthday card.”  In it’s most blatant form this defense sounds like:

He:  You never help with the dishes.
She:  That’s not true, you’re the one who never helps.

Yes-Buting. A yes-but is any statement that starts off agreeing but ends up disagreeing.  For example:

She:  You said you were going to fill the gas tank and you didn’t.
He:  Yes, but that’s because I had to get home to watch the game.

Repeating yourself . Rather than attempting to try to understand your partner’s point of view, couples who use this technique simply repeat back their own position to each other again and again.  Both think they are right—and that trying to understand the other’s perspective is a waste of time.  Both keep rephrasing and restating their point of view without paying an iota of attention to what the other is saying.  They are hoping that if they express their opinion often enough—or loudly enough—eventually  their partner will give in.

The fact that defensiveness is an understandable reaction to feeling besieged is one reason it is so destructive—the “victim” doesn’t see anything wrong with being defensive.  But defensive phrases, and the attitude they express, tend to escalate a conflict rather than resolve it.  If you are being defensive, even if you feel completely self-righteous in your stance, you are adding to your marital troubles.

I will talk about how to lessen defensive reactions in next week’s column.

Source:  Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail by John Gottman (Fireside)

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