By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
During tough conversations, it’s helpful to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between petty issues and important ones. Many experts agree that bickering can lead to the demise of a relationship. It’s like chronic warfare that erodes the quality of a relationship and makes it tough to discuss difficult topics. When dealing with differences with your partner, the key is to listen attentively, understand each other’s perspective, reign in defensiveness, and stop criticizing and blaming each other.
For instance, Jackson has become resentful of Becca over the last few years because she spends money without informing him. From his perspective, Becca has been increasingly detached and secretive about her spending habits. During our session, they had an argument that left them both feeling defeated and bitter. I encouraged them to listen to each other and not focus on who was to blame for their problem.
Jackson glanced at Becca and put it like this: “My anger and resentment started to mount when you told me two months after you put a trip with your girlfriend on a credit card without telling me. You were literally charging large amounts for clothes and air fare without telling me – even when I asked you why our balances were going up. I can’t trust you anymore since you kept this secret. If you hadn’t lied to me, I might feel differently.”
Becca explains, “I understand how bad this sounds but I needed to get some new clothes to go on a trip with Caitlyn which we planned a year ago. I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d object and we’d argue. You often criticize me because I don’t earn enough money. I’m starting my own business and it will take time.”
Jackson and Becca need a way to stop blaming each other and to stop their pattern of trying to prove a point. The first step toward changing this negative pattern of relating is awareness. They can benefit from embracing the mindset that working together is more important than being right.
While it’s tempting to launch into expressing anger and to get into the attack mode when you feel hurt or frustrated, it can alienate your partner and drive a wedge between you. That said, you’ll accomplish more and improve your communication if you tell your partner what you need in a positive way.
For instance, if Jackson says to Becca “I would appreciate it if you’d do a budget for your trip with me,” this “I” statement would be more effective than saying, “You never worry about money. In most cases, a“You” statement that sparks her defensiveness.
In marriage, one of the biggest hurdles couples face is how to approach difficult conversations without getting defensive. This leads to an unfortunate pattern of attack and defensiveness where both partners believe they must prove they’re right and must defend their positions.
In After the Fight, psychologist Dr. Daniel B. Wile, explains that if this defensive pattern continues over time, it can diminish love and respect between you and your partner The following are ways to stop being defensive with your partner before it becomes a bigger issue.
6 Ways to Stop Being Defensive With Your Partner:
1. Keep a calm composure and state needs clearly: While it is natural to raise your voice and get agitated when you feel attacked, lower your voice and adopt a friendlier tone. If you feel yourself taking things personally, press the pause button and suggest a 10 to 15-minute break to your partner before continuing a conflictual conversation. You might say “I’m trying to listen but I can feel myself getting defensive. Can we start this conversation again in 15 minutes?
2. Listen to your partner’s side of the story and validate him or her. Instead of focusing on your own agenda and the points you want to get across, ask your partner what is bothering them and really listen before responding. When you respond, validate their perspective and use a soft start-up such as “I value your input and I’d love to hear more from you.” Be sure to use good eye contact and reassuring touch to comfort your mate such as holding their hand.
3. Focus on the issues at hand. When you focus on the past, you miss the opportunity to work together to come up with a solution. You are no longer on the same team. Instead, focus on the issues at hand or in the present to meet both of your needs. Resist the urge to bring up baggage or touch on your partner’s raw spots or issues you know might trigger his or her defensiveness.
4. Use “I” statements to express yourself in a positive way. State what you want such as “I would like you to share more information about your spending with me. Avoid using “You” statements such as “You never talk to me about money.” Remember to focus on expressing your feelings in a way that invites your partner to communicate, rather than pushing them away.
5. Take responsibility. If you focus more on your part of the problem, you will be less likely to point your finger at your partner or take things personally. Reflect on how your words and actions might make your partner feel and let him or her know that you own your part in a disagreement. Try to focus on changing your approach to communication, rather than trying to change your partner’s perspective or personality.
6. Apologize if you have done something to hurt your mate – even if it was not intentional – after they’ve had a chance to describe how you hurt them. This will ensure it’s a sincere apology. Be brief and to the point without making excuses. For instance, Becca might simply say, “I am sorry for keeping a secret from you. I love you and won’t do it again.” By taking responsibility for her part in the dispute, even just a small piece, this will validate Jackon’s feelings, promote forgiveness, and allow them both to move on.
Becca put it like this: “When we disagree, I try to apologize to Jackson when I overreact to something he says and not take it so personally. I know that when I blow things out of proportion, it’s often my own baggage. When he apologizes to me after he’s said something hurtful, it really helps me move on and feel better. I’m working on accepting his apology, letting go, and I’m trying to be a bigger person.”
When you are having an argument with your partner, stop and try to remember the positive qualities that drew you to him or her in the first place. It’s a good idea to give your partner the benefit of the doubt rather than attacking them or getting defensive. Being defensive or negative will only push your partner away. The next time you feel upset at your partner, examine your own thoughts and responses — before you point out his or her faults—if you want your relationship to endure the test of time.
Follow Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be ordered here.