You’re calling me a failure? You think I’ve failed at my job? You should try to work for an ungrateful, clueless boss sometime. Just try it and see if you get a promotion. And you’re saying that I’ve failed this marriage? If you want to know whose fault our failed marriage is you should look in the mirror, baby, because I’m only dishing out what you’ve been serving me since the day after our engagement. Yeah, that is when I think things started to go downhill. All through our engagement you cared more about our wedding day than our marriage. Oh, and remember what I said about working for someone who is ungrateful and clueless? You are the expert on being ungrateful and clueless. You have no idea what I do for you and our children. If you think I’m a failure, it’s only because you backed me into a little corner I can’t get out of, a corner where you can do no wrong and I can do no right. Don’t you dare tell me I’m a failure unless you want to hear exactly what I think about you. You may have started this fight but I’ll finish it! Just try me!
Defensiveness is an attempt to ward off a perceived attack from someone. Gottman describes defensiveness as “a form of self-protection through whining (“innocent victim” stance) or counterattacking (“righteous indignation” stance).” (p. 145). As with all of the Four Horsemen of the Relational Apocalypse, defensiveness is a common component of the unproductive, harsh, back-and-forth arguments that lead partners to break-up or divorce.
The Urge to Defend
When our partner disapproves of our behavior or claims that we are at fault for a problem in the relationship, we tend to respond automatically with defensiveness. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Verbal arguments trigger a response in our brain that is similar to the fight-or-flight response we would have if we were being attacked by a bear in the woods. In the wild, survival depends in part on an animal’s ability to fend off predators. For thousands and thousands of years, our ancestors have habitually used defensiveness against threats to survival. The problem with using defensiveness in arguments with a spouse or partner is that it is a tool forged to fight off a physical attack and it is not designed to effectively increase understanding, build trust, and strengthen love in a relationship. In order to avoid falling into the trap of using defensiveness in arguments with others, we need to learn how to respond differently to the fight-or-flight response that is triggered during relationship conflict.
Murray Bowen, one of the early pioneers of marriage and family therapy, noticed that people can develop the capacity to separate thought from feeling, allowing them to avoid responding automatically to emotionally charged situations such as relationship conflict. He described people who are able to maintain composure during stressful circumstances as differentiated. Developing a high level of differentiation is a critical step toward learning how to avoid using defensiveness in relationship conflict.
In couple therapy, the work often starts with me teaching clients how to be more differentiated. Becoming more differentiated is crucial because it allows partners to be poised, clear headed, and self-controlled even when their emotions run high.
When have become differentiated enough to respond non-defensively to criticism from our partner, it can be helpful to empathize with him or her before we say anything. This can take no more than a second or two, during which the inner monologue in our head would sound something like “Wow, she is really upset. Look how mad she is. Even though I think she’s totally wrong for saying what she just said, I think I’ll try to understand her point of view” or “Well, that hurts. My gosh, he is being entirely unreasonable. My guess is that he’s overwhelmed at the moment and will probably regret saying things this way after he has calmed down. Obviously, we don’t agree about this but I think I will remind him that I love him and try to understand things from his perspective.” Empathizing with someone who has hurt or criticized us tends to soften the anger we feel toward that person and prepares us to respond in a productive manner.
Gottman described the antidote to defensiveness as “…taking responsibility for even a small part of the problem” (p. 145). Accepting responsibility could range from taking on 100% fault for the problem (e.g., “You’re right, I forgot to pick up the prescriptions. I’m sorry.”) to admitting a failure to see situation from a partner’s point of view (e.g., “Even though I didn’t see it at the time, I realize now that you were hurt by my actions. I apologize. I won’t do that again.”). When partners get in the habit of sharing responsibility for problems in the relationship, conflict rarely escalates to an unmanageable level.
Look at how the vignette at the beginning of this post reads differently when I replace the defensive, contemptuous, and critical language with conflict communication that works:
It breaks my heart to know you’re disappointed with me. I feel angry, too. Please let me know what I can to do to make life easier and our relationship stronger. Honestly, I think we need to figure out a way to fight better. I feel hurt when we fight like this and I know that I’ve hurt you, too. I’m sorry. I can do better. Even now I realize that I haven’t told you today how much I love and appreciate you. I do love you, babe. I want to impress you. I want to be with you. I’m committed to making things work. Now, even if we end up disagreeing, I at least want to understand where you’re coming from. Can we talk about things now?