Ever notice your spouse giving you feedback and you instantly without even thinking give an excuse or explain yourself, or worse you blame them for it? I see it all the time in my Atlanta couples counseling office.
There are plenty of things that happen in conflict that impact a couple’s ability to make stick with it for the long haul, and this is one of them. Let’s talk about DEFENSIVENESS.
I know. You’re already wanting to change the page. You’re not interested in reading about how your defensiveness is hurting you. Why? Because why wouldn’t you defend yourself? Your partner should know that they’re wrong. Right?
Nope. Not exactly. Not according to everything this Atlanta couples counselor has learned.
Becoming defensive can tend to perpetuate unhelpful conflict patterns that get couples caught in loops. When we defend ourselves, our partners are often left feeling unheard and invalidated and so they respond to these feelings with unhelpful patterns, and the cycle continues.
The Gottman Institute has done around 40 years of research on what keeps married couples together. And they’ve found several things to be true about the couples who go the distance, and several things to be true about couples that don’t.
In fact, there are four absolutely devastating things that can break up a marriage. And the more you do them and the more of them there are, the more likely (statistically) you are to divorce. I’m frequently helping couples identify and change these patterns in my Atlanta couples counseling office. They call these marriage killers
the four horsemen.
One of the four horsemen is…you guessed it…defensiveness.
That’s right, defensiveness has been linked to divorce. But don’t worry. There are ways that you can work in communication to get rid of defensiveness but still communicate.
First, begin recognizing the types of words, body language, interaction seem defensive. Almost any time you find yourself explaining what you’ve done, defending your actions, clarifying…check to see if it’s defensive. If so, stop and work to take responsibility.
This can be so difficult, but just try it. I’m not telling you to take responsibility for something you didn’t do. But, do take responsibility for your part. So for instance, your husband comes home and says ‘Oh, you didn’t do the dishes.’ Instead of defending yourself you might say ‘you’re right I wasn’t able to get to them. I know it would have been nice for you to come home to the kitchen being cleaned.’ Plain and simple. Now, I get that you may have been running errands for him or taking care of the kids, or all of the other million things you needed to do, but be careful. If you spout all of that off it could turn into an unnecessary argument.
Now, I want to also encourage you by saying that you can express your feelings and ask for what you need. So taking responsibility doesn’t mean you’re left invalidated. So in this same example the wife might say ‘Honey today was a rough day. I wasn’t able to get to the dishes which felt important but I’m feeling exhausted and deflated. Can you give me some compliments for the hard work I did on the yard?’ So notice, she shared her feelings and asked for what she needed.
Avoiding defensiveness is a different way of thinking and responding during conflict, and it can be really helpful if done well. There’s more, but if you can start with that, you’ll be making good forward movement.