Ideas for Reducing Defensiveness in Your Relationship

Have you ever been wrong? We all have been. Now the question is what did you do in that situation? Did you extend an olive branch by taking some ownership of the problem, were you willing to take the first steps to resolve the problem, or did you do what many of us do - defend your position to the point of ridiculousness? Many times when a disagreement arises, we decide that the other person is in the wrong, and then we defend our position at all costs. The problem is, when both people in a discussion do this there is no hope for resolution.

The marriage researcher John Gottman lists defensiveness as one of the Four Horsemen of communication. Allowing defensiveness into our communication can weaken and potentially destroy a marriage. Defensiveness is “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” When we get defensive we are saying that there is nothing we should have done differently, that we are perfect. On the other hand if we can learn to be okay with being wrong, to see even the smallest part we played in a problem, it gives us the opportunity to improve. The ability to see our imperfections is one of the greatest blessings we can receive, if we actually want to improve.

Another problem with defensiveness is that by protecting ourselves we are putting up barriers between us and our spouse. What do we value more, our relationship or our pride? When we protect ourselves from admitting fault we are prioritizing our pride over our relationship. We need to turn toward each other and stop worrying about who is right and focus on what is right. This is the path to greater intimacy in marriage.

Look at an example of defensiveness we have seen in our relationship. First we decide we are correct. We refuse to see the other person’s side of the story, because we don’t need to, they are obviously wrong. Shields up, attack, ignore any and all arguments to the contrary. Eventually we start to see we are wrong. Now we feel bad. We can’t believe we are wrong, AGAIN. We were wrong again, we are the reason for this argument. At this point shame enters the picture, now we just feel horrible. We still aren’t focused on the solution. Now we are focused on how bad we feel, how damaged we are. Now we just end up feeling steamrolled and crappy. Finally, since defensiveness and shame stopped us from learning anything, the whole ordeal repeats itself at some future point.

Instead, a better pattern is to start off with humility, realize we aren’t perfect and so there is almost certainly something we could have done better. Then look for what a couple of those things were and admit them. Finally come up with ideas of how we can do better in the future. Now imagine a world where we are both willing to do this. This pattern leads to intimacy and growth.

The problem is this isn’t easy. Pride is a difficult beast to tame, and it often kind of sneaks up on us. By the time an argument gets rolling we have already said one or two things that we wish we hadn’t, or our partner has already said something that irks us, and now we are feeling hurt, unloved, or on edge. By then it just “feels better” to plough ahead.

As we said, it isn’t easy, but here are some things we have found that help.

Show love. As soon as a discussion is even starting try sharing a hug, or show some type of affection, maybe a kind word or hold hands. Something as simple as this can help our partner know we love and care for them, as well as it can help remind us how we feel about them. This simple gesture can help increase feelings of unity during a discussion and make it more likely we will look at the problem as a team that is working together instead of a competition.

Ask questions. Often we think we understand our spouses concerns and what they are trying to ask or tell us. The simple act of asking questions though can both show our partner that we are interested in what they are saying and can help to increase our true understanding of what they are saying.

Repeat and rephrase. This can feel awkward, but it can be very useful to try repeating back to each other what we think the other person is saying. This can reduce misunderstandings, helps the other person feel they are being heard and understood, and forces us to really listen. When we know we need to summarize something they are saying we are less likely to already be forming rebuttals in our head while they are talking.

Make it about the future. Sometimes a discussion stops being about the actual issue and turn into an argument about what specifically was said or done. We have found in these cases that saying something like “okay, we disagree on the exact details, but how do we want to handle a similar situation in the future” can be useful. This allows us to move away from whose memory is best and who was right or who was wrong, and instead we are able to focus on understanding each other’s expectations.

Apologize. This is often the toughest part. Learn to apologize, frequently. In any discussion there are times where we misspeak. Where we remember something incorrectly. Where we speak a little too forcefully. Get in the habit of apologizing as soon as possible for even the smallest things. This can help us feel more comfortable apologizing and can help the other person feel like we are taking ownership. One of our most important rules on apologizing is not adding a “but” at the end. Try it, it will feel awkward, we want to move on as quickly as possible after an apology. Instead try adding a fist bump or hug at the end of even the smallest apology.

Be less tolerant. This last one is probably the least intuitive. There are many little annoyances in any relationship, maybe they didn’t hold the door open for us, maybe they interrupted us in the middle of a sentence, etc. The point is, if they are really bugging you, don’t ignore them. We have found that often arguments, and feelings of defensiveness, are about an annoyance from yesterday, not about today’s concern. This argument by proxy makes it nearly impossible to make progress because everything is hidden. When something is bugging you, bring it up, don’t let it fester. Don’t pretend it is okay and then be irritable tomorrow. It may seem petty to bring up the fact that they didn’t ask us about our day, but if we have made an agreement to be high maintenance it is okay to bring those issues up early. This will help future discussions go a lot smoother.

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In conclusion we would like to recommend the following quote:

“One of the most defining and dangerous characteristics of certainty [is that] it is toxic to a shift in a perspective. If imagination is what enables us to conceive of and enjoy stories other than our own, and if empathy is the act of taking other people’s stories seriously, certainty deadens or destroys both qualities. When we are caught up in our own convictions, other people’s stories—which is to say, other people—cease to matter to us. … If you doubt it, listen to yourself the next time you argue with a family member. Leaving behind our more thoughtful and generous selves, we become smug, or patronizing, or scornful, or downright bellicose. And that’s when we are fighting with people we love.” (Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz -- Buy this book!)

Defensiveness is a habit we all fall into. We need to be more conscious about how we are reacting to our spouses and to others. As we learn to take responsibility and ownership for our mistakes we will find that we progress through life much more effectively. We will find that our relationships will be more fulfilling, loving, and intimate.

We wish you the best in this endeavor. As we said earlier, it isn’t easy. Give your spouse a hug and start discussing with them today how you are going to work on being less defensive in the future.

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The purpose of “The Couple Project” is to learn more about what makes a strong marriage or relationship. We share what we are learning, which ideas we are trying, and which ideas helped improve our relationship. We realize not everything that works for us will work for you, but we still hope you will find our journey valuable.

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"A United Marriage: 5 Biblical Principles to Ponder"