By Terry Gaspard, LICSW
During tough conversations, it’s helpful to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between what is and what isn’t worth making an issue about. For instance, Grace, 34, and Hugh, 35, often find themselves arguing about the same things over and over again because they both have a need to be “right” and they dig their heels in when discussing issues that arise.
Grace put it this way, “Hugh picks on me for little things and criticizes my house keeping. He forgets that I work at a high-pressure job for a major insurance company and I’m doing my best to raise our two kids. Since he works in another state, I’m the person their school calls when someone gets sick.”
Many experts, including author Esther Perel, believe 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.
In marriage, one of the biggest hurdles many couples face is how to approach difficult conversations without getting defensive or trying to prove a point. Defensiveness leads to an unfortunate pattern of attack and defensiveness where both partners believe they must prove they’re right and must defend their positions.
Truth be told, it takes two people to contribute to a miscommunication or dispute. According to psychologist Dr. Daniel B. Wile, if a pattern of attack and defensiveness continues over time, it can diminish love and respect between partners. The following are ways to curb defensiveness before it becomes a bigger issue.
In a recent article for the Gottman Institute’s website, Dr. Cheryl Fraser, writes about the dynamics of defensiveness, and the destructive consequences it can have on a couple’s happiness. And while many of us can become defensive from time to time, it’s crucial to recognize that a pattern of behavior can become a way of life in a relationship.
Defensiveness rears its head most obviously when we feel attacked or blamed for what we might view as non-issues or minor infractions, or when we perceive the issue at our hand is not our fault. However, an equally likely but less apparent trigger of defensiveness is the feeling that our efforts are unappreciated or have gone unrecognized.
Dr. Fraser focuses on these issues, clearly underscoring the high stakes for partners who let defensiveness and its consequences go unchecked. According to Fraser, is defensiveness goes “unchecked,” it is a common “predictor of divorce.”
The tricky dynamics of defensiveness are unpacked in Dr. Fraser’s article, which points out that the very discussion of defensiveness in a relationship often leads to a defensive response. The fact that the conversation is necessary can lead one or both partners to feel like they’re being blamed, and the result is a kind of feedback loop in which trying to communicate about defensiveness can engender the precise feelings at the root of relationship conflict.
But for all the worry and consternation this can cause, Dr. Fraser offers readers a set of “tools to dissolve defensiveness.” If couples can cherish and foster these strategies, regaining control of a relationship is possible.
First, Dr. Fraser writes that couples should “let go of being right.” Strife in a relationship is given oxygen when partners cling to the idea that one of them is right — which necessarily means that the other is wrong. This dynamic of need to “win” an argument or conversation breeds resentment and grudges that make growth difficult.
Next, Fraser suggests that partners “break the pattern of defensive fighting by shutting up. Instead of continuing to speak, do some jumping jacks or share a three-breath hug. Activate your parasympathetic nervous system, calm down, and try to see your mate for who they truly are—your ally, not your enemy.” This particular “tool” is akin to way in which we feel refreshed in response to a change of scenery. Think of what Dr. Fraser calls “changing your physiology” like a momentary vacation that will hopefully impart of sense of calm and a new, perhaps more empathetic perspective.
Dr. Fraser suggests several other communication tools that may help break the pattern of defensiveness. For example, stopping and “counting to 3,” can work in much the same way that engaging in physical movement does. It slows down a conflict that may be escalating and can restore peace.
Another similar tactic is choosing a “code word.” If partners can bring a sense of mindfulness to their communication and agree on a word, that when used by one partner or another, is a shorthand for saying “we are getting off track, let’s begin again,” couples can create for themselves a sort of reset button.
Here several more ways to curb defensiveness excerpted from my book The Remarriage Manual:
4 Ways to Curb Defensiveness:
- Keep a calm composure: 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?
- Listen to your partner’s side of the story and validate them. Instead of focusing on your own agenda and the points, you want to get across, ask your partner what’s 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.
- Focus on the issues at hand. When you focus on changing your partner, 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 to meet both of your needs. Don’t throw in the kitchen sink or rehash baggage. Stay in the moment and resist the urge to bring up old issues or touch on your partner’s raw spots.
- Take responsibility. If you focus more on your part of the problem, you’ll 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.
In the end, as with so many of the negative behavioral patterns that grow out of a couples’ ineffective communication style, overcoming defensiveness is possible by bringing a sense of awareness and a set of simple tools to a relationship. Remember: we’re human, we all make mistakes, and intention is important. Commitment to changing the destructive dynamics of defensiveness is a manifestation of a couple’s love and will only serve to strengthen the bonds that bring partners together.
Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on this website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True in 2020 and is the winner of American Book Fest’s 2020 Best Book Award in Self-Help Relationships.