Oh, sweet irony. We defend ourselves in relationships because we think it protects and makes us feel better. But does it really help?
Well, no. (This is where the irony comes in.)
This isn't based only on my observations as a therapist. Research backs it up.
When it comes to relationships, defensiveness can be as damaging as a Twitter account in the wrong hands.
John Gottman, a leading expert on relationships, cites defensiveness as one of four negative behaviours that predict divorce. In fact, his research shows there's an 81 per cent chance a marriage will self-implode when a husband defends against a wife's influence. (Yes, Gottman discovered gender differences in his research, which he attributes to differences in socialization. This does not mean women can't be defensive, too!)
Sue Johnson, another expert on relationships, promotes accessibility, responsiveness and engagement as essential to a healthy connection -- none of which are possible when we're defensive. At a recent workshop she emphasized that "emotional responsiveness is what defines a relationship." The key question we ask of our partner is, "Are you there for me?"
To be clear, defensiveness is the opposite of responsiveness.
So how do you know if you're being defensive?
To the question, "Are you there for me?" you are telling your partner, "No, at the moment, I'm not."
Here's an example. Your partner works hard during the week, and then finishes work early on Friday. There's excitement to start the weekend together, usually by cooking a meal or having a drink on the patio. One Friday afternoon you get delayed in a meeting and then decide to finish some emails before heading home. You only remember to send a text as you leave work, much later than usual. When you get home, your partner is upset.
How do you respond?
"I can't believe you're upset about this." or "Can't we just enjoy the evening?" Instead of validating your partner's concerns, you disregard them as unimportant.
Translation: "Your feelings don't matter."
"Seriously? I'm hardly even late!" or "It was nothing. I just had a meeting!" Instead of taking your partner seriously, you trivialize their concern.
Translation: "You're not worth taking seriously."
"Are you crazy? You're totally over-reacting." or "You have serious problems if this is upsetting you." Instead of making your partner feel understood, you make them feel bad about themselves.
Translation: "There is something wrong with you."
"You came home much later than me last night!" or "You're always the one who puts work first." Instead of empathizing with your partner, you try to put the blame on them.
Translation: "You're the problem."
"It wasn't my fault. I had no control over the meeting!" or "I just forgot to text you. I didn't do it on purpose." Instead of taking accountability, which is part of being responsive, you try to justify yourself.
Translation: "I don't see you. I only see myself."
"Clearly we can't be together if you won't accept my work ethic!" or "I can't be with someone who wants me to be perfect all the time."
This may as well be called "detonating." Instead of containing the situation, your reaction threatens to blow up the relationship.
Translation: "I'm not really committed to you."
Your partner is already feeling negative, and then what happens? You douse the flames with more fuel.
None of these reactions is responsive. None of them show empathy or engagement. To the question, "Are you there for me?" you are telling your partner, "No, at the moment, I'm not."
And none of these reactions actually makes us feel better. Why? Because defensiveness escalates the conflict. Your partner is already feeling negative, and then what happens? You douse the flames with more fuel, which then engulfs the relationship.
So how do you deal with defensiveness when it arises, for your partner, and for yourself?
Pause before responding. Take a breath, or two, or three, and don't say anything if it's going to be defensive.
Mirror back your partner's words. Not only does this help you pause and be less reactive, it also ensures you understand their concern correctly.
Be curious about their feelings. If you can't apologize right away, then ask them to tell you more about how they feel. (This can disarm your partner and calm them down, too.)
Trust your partner. Seek out the reasonable request in their complaint. Likely they just need reassurance or support or respect.
Validate their feelings. Let them know you understand why they're upset. This may take practice, but it is essential for a sense of connectedness.
Apologize. Be sincere and express remorse for hurting your partner or disappointing them.
If you notice a pattern of defensiveness it can help to see a therapist to better understand what you are trying to defend and where it's coming from (and no, it's not your partner). It can also help to meditate and practice mindfulness, which re-wires your brain to be less reactive.
But don't wait. The best way to restore connection, and make yourself feel better, is by letting go the need to defend so you can really be there for your partner, and them for you.
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