What We Learned by Focusing On Defensiveness

written by Kelli & Nathan

Our focus in January, for The Couple Project, was on defensiveness and being okay with being wrong. We found, as we focused on this topic, the word “sorry” coming out of our mouths with a little more frequency, we noticed our mistakes a little quicker, and it was a little easier to show humility. We know that we can only improve if we are willing to examine ourselves and our actions with an open mind. We are learning to look at being wrong as Thomas Edison did when he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

During the month we spent time reading “Being Wrong”, by Kathyrn Schulz, we kept track of how often we said sorry, and each day we tried to come up with one thing we could have done better. The book was excellent and we would highly recommend it. Keeping track of saying sorry and finding things we could have done better was more difficult than we expected. Next month we will be trying to track our goals better.

We found that as we paid attention to saying sorry, it really did become a lot easier. Early in the month there was a particular example where one of us made a mistake. When an apology was requested we could see how much effort it took the person to comply. They wanted to get upset, they wanted to become defensive, but they stopped, struggled for a minute, and then simply said, “I’m sorry”. This was a huge milestone for us. From there it just got easier.

As we went through the month we looked for examples where we quickly admitted a mistake and apologized, or where we should have:

  • During a discussion one of us started talking too loudly. The other person simply reminded them to talk more calmly. They were able to quickly calm down, say sorry, and speak appropriately again.
  • We were hiking and one of us stopped along the trail to look at a cool fungus. Eventually, the other person noticed they had fallen behind and called back asking if there was a problem. At this point we got into a silly argument as to why the person who saw the fungus didn’t let the other person know, so they could look at it as well. A simple, “thanks I will make sure I let you know if I see something cool”, instead of reacting defensively, would have saved an argument.
  • During a discussion one of us said, “You don’t listen.” The other responded, “That isn’t fair to say I never listen.” To which the reply was shot back, “I didn’t say you never listened.” After we discussed it a little we agreed that they are actually pretty close to the same thing, the person apologized, and we moved on.

There are many different ways to be wrong: focusing too much on meaningless things, being defensive, and simply not being nice. When someone points out a mistake we have made, we need to apologize, even when we don’t feel like it — especially when we don’t feel like it. It isn’t about who is the most at fault, we can apologize even when the other person has made more mistakes than us. It isn’t about who is right, or what is right, it is about improving and creating good relationships with those around us. When we look at a situation with a little more humility we will often be able to find one or two things we could have done better. When we stop focusing on what the other person could have done better we will be able to discover the opportunities where we can improve.

We found this great example in the children’s story “I Will Throw The Ball'' by Moe Willems. Gerald the Elephant is practicing throwing a ball and his friend Piggie wants to try. Gerald warns Piggie that throwing a ball isn’t easy. Piggie winds up and throws the ball... behind her. She looks for the ball up ahead but she obviously can’t see it. Gerald points out that the ball is behind her. Instead of admitting she didn’t do it right Piggie decides she has thrown the ball all the way around the world! Gerald points out the truth. Piggie has two choices, she can become defensive and stick to her view of the world or she can try to see if she is mistaken. Piggie quickly recognizes she didn’t throw the ball very far but decides she still had fun! We need to do this more often. Error isn’t a place of shame, instead it is an opportunity for growth.

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We all can work on being more open to being wrong. It is not a sign that we are stupid or ignorant, instead a willingness to make mistakes allows us to grow and improve. We need to remember that “however disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” (Schulz). In relationships a willingness to be humble and own our mistakes creates an environment where trust and intimacy can grow. That is the kind of environment we want in our relationship.

For this next month we have decided to focus on acts of love because “there's no such thing as love; only proof of love.”(— Jean Cocteau).

The acts of love we are focusing on this month are:

  • Do at least one nice thing for our spouse each day. These can be as simple as a hug or a kind word.
  • Two or three larger nice things each week. These are things that require at least a couple of minutes of planning. A treat together (some hot chocolate or a picnic), something special for sex that night, or just a plan to watch a movie our spouse has been excited about. We let our spouse know about these ahead of time so they can give suggestions to what they would like.
  • Expressing gratitude for our spouse each day. We write these thoughts down in our journals each morning and share them with our spouse.

Join us again this month as we focus on acts of love. Our goal is to gain a greater appreciation for each other and to do a better job putting our love into action.

We hope this article has been useful. If you have any questions we would love to be given the opportunity to clarify. If you would like to share how this article has helped you, we would love to hear about that as well. Either way send us an email. We read and reply to all of them.


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The Couple Project is an attempt to learn more about what makes a strong marriage or relationship. We will be sharing what we are learning, what ideas we are trying, and which ideas seem to help us. We realize not everything that works for us, will work for you, but we still hope you will find the journey valuable. Please subscribe to our newsletter. We would also love to hear any questions or feedback you have.

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