Overcoming Defensiveness

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

Defensiveness is one of the more destructive ways of handling conflict and anger, and it can lead to endless spirals of negativity. The major problem with being defensive is that it obstructs communication between people.  Rather than understanding each other’s perspectives, you spend your discussions defending yourselves.  Since nothing gets resolved, the conflict continues to escalate, so you have even more discussions characterized by attack and defensiveness.

If you get defensive, you are likely to have innocent-victim thoughts during fights with your spouse.  You see your spouse as attacking and yourself as unfairly accused and underappreciated.  Here are some ideas about how you can stop defensiveness from getting the better of you:

  • Be A Good Listener. The first step toward breaking out of being defensive is to no longer see your partner’s words as an attack—but as information that is being strongly expressed.  While your mate has the floor, it is your job to genuinely understand and empathize with the feelings behind the words you hear.  The trick here is to try very hard not to take what your spouse is saying as a personal attack that demands you defend or counterattack, even if you’re hearing a lot of contempt.  See your partner’s negativity as a way of emphasizing how strongly s/he feels about the issue—a way to get you to pay attention.

Non-defensive listening doesn’t mean you need to agree with him/her.  Your mission is to try to understand your partner’s feelings—and accept them as legitimate—even if you don’t share them.  Send the message “I can understand why you might see things the way you do.”

  • Take responsibility. If your wife says that she gets upset when you don’t call to let her know you’ll be home late from work, try answering with “Gee, I really made you angry, didn’t I?”  You are acknowledging that your actions might provoke your partner’s response.
  • Apologize. Similarly a straight-out apology is a very strong form of validation, because it lets your partner know you consider his/her gripe valid and worth respecting.

If you are in a relationship with someone who tends to act defensively, use:

  • Praise And Admiration. You must remind yourself that your mate’s negative qualities do not cancel all the positives that led you to fall in love.  Make a list of your partner’s positive qualities—the things s/he does that contribute and add to your life together.  Memorize this list. When you find yourself following a critical train of thought about your mate, use elements from this list to (ital)interrupt(ital) your thinking. Seasoning your interactions with genuine praise and admiration will significantly limit your spouse’s defensiveness.
  • Remove the blame from your comments.
  • Don’t criticize your partner’s personality.
  • Don’t insult, mock or use sarcasm.
  • Stick with one issue at a time.

Often, when people express themselves heatedly it’s because they think that’s the only way to make you listen.  Remember that the anger or insult is really for emphasis, a “thwack” to get you to pay attention to what they are saying.  If you respond defensively to protect yourself from intense emotions, your spouse is likely to increase rather than lessen the emotional volume of his or her words.

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

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