The NFL draft is in a few days and some of the best prospects are defensive players.  Being a defensive player may be sought after in the world of football, but not so much in the world of intimate relationships.

Defensiveness is the way we protect ourself from a perceived attack.   We typically think of defensiveness as righteous indignation, which makes you feel very justified in your stance.  It is a way of blaming your partner by saying “I am not the problem, you are”.  We can also shoot out defensiveness to our partner by means of a venomous counterattack.  We keep score and make sure we stay ahead.   A less obvious way of being defensive is to to act like an innocent victim.  This is done by whining and making self-sacrificing statements, like “I guess I am just a terrible husband who can never get it right.”.  You don’t want to be blamed for anything so you assume all of the blame, not giving your partner any room to criticize or shame you further.

When you are defensive you have a hard time seeing your role in the conflict.  You can’t focus on your partner’s complaint or expression of painful emotions because you are too busy formulating your defensive strategy.  You become closed minded, squelching any chance of having a conversation that will help you work through a conflict or feel more emotionally connected to your partner.  Your partner is left feeling unheard, angry, and frustrated . . . very, very frustrated.

John Gottman has identified defensiveness as on the of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, meaning one of the patterns present in relationships that has the power to lead to divorce.  Defensiveness is destructive because we become more focused on ourself than our partner.  We find it impossible to admit any responsibility.  We see every flaw in our partner, but none in ourself.  When you can’t admit that you are not perfect and have room to grow, the relationship suffers greatly.

In relationships that work, couples down-regulate their defensiveness by being aware of their partners pain and remembering their love for that person.  They try very hard to listen to their partner and look for the grain of truth in their complaints.  They take responsibility for how they contributed to the problem.

The first step towards working on defensiveness is to realize that you are doing it.  You begin to recognize how your sensitivity, fears or feelings of inadequacy are interfering.  Then you must work on being able to listen to your partners complaints or pain.  While not always easy to do, you look for opportunities to truly understand what your partner is saying and get to a point where you can say, “I can see why you feel that way.”  When you can accept that your partner’s feelings are valid, even if they are different from your own, your partner will feel validated and understood.

When we are defensive we work on winning the battle, but unfortunately we may lose the war in the process.  When we work on our defensiveness we grow as a person, and our relationship has a chance to deepen and flourish.

 

Mary Beth George, MEd, LPC

Certified Gottman Therapist