We’ve all been there! Somebody says something to us which we perceive as an unjust criticism or attack and we react defensively. The problem is the moment we become defensive is when both parties get caught in a spiral of verbal volleys that quickly escalate into a full-blown argument (usually about something other than what the original comment was all about!). Now, we all know that some people we interact with can say things that can only be described as rude, uncalled for, insulting, bullying or unkind. I am not talking about these kinds of interactions where we are fully justified in going on the defensive in order to protect our boundaries. I am talking about reacting in a defensive manner in our closest personal relationships which is always counter-productive to both parties when this happens.
While we all accept on an intellectual level that arguments are self-defeating and shut down the lines of communication between us, we go on the defensive because on a subconscious level our ego hates to be in the wrong! When we see ourselves as the wronged party we are now shutting our ears to any other viewpoint – and that includes the one that the comment may not have been made in the way we have interpreted it! We all want to avoid confrontations but when we start to become defensive confrontation is the only outcome. So, what can we do to stop it before it escalates?
John Gottman, a well known relationship expert, tells us that “defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.” So, first take a mental step back: try to put yourself into the other person’s shoes. Ask yourself what they are feeling and what might have made them feel this way? How would you then react in their place? Above all, ask yourself if they really meant what they said to be interpreted in the way you have. Then, tell them you understand the way they are feeling and if you have been unable to interpret their comment in any other way than the way you have, say something like ‘My initial reaction to what you said was to feel very defensive and I felt as if you were criticising me for no reason, but I can understand how you may have felt this way although it wasn’t my intention. Can we talk about this?’ This way you are opening up the doors to a discussion rather than an argument.
Gottman has identified seven defensive responses and asks us to look at whether we resort to any of them when we feel we are being attacked.
1: Making Excuses: Blaming something beyond your control for not keeping your word. An example of this is your partner (or child!) doesn’t come home by the agreed hour, doesn’t call, but then blames traffic/work/others – the list goes on.
2: Cross-Complaining: Your partner complains about something and you counter with a complaint of your own. An example of this would be you complaining that your partner is running late and them countering with the comment the kitchen is a mess. You then respond that it wouldn’t be if they got home in time to help you and – so it goes.
3: Yes – but . . .: This one is more subtle and can be harder to spot. It starts off with your partner agreeing with you but ends with them disagreeing. You may not even be aware it is happening. Example: ‘Why can’t you just pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper rather than leave them on the floor for me?’ Reply: ‘I know you hate having to pick up after me. I’m just so frantic in the morning trying to get ready for work’. The responding partner is keen to point out they are not at fault – and in fact the sub-text here is that the complaining partner should be more understanding. This negates their feelings while effectively letting the other partner off-the-hook.
4: Table-turning: You show whoever is complaining that their criticism applies equally to them. This usually involves digging up a past infraction (perceived or real). Example: You: They’re expecting us in 10 minutes and it’s going to take 20 just to drive there. We need to leave . . . Partner: I had to wait half an hour for you last week because you were running late . . . So, your partner takes an implied criticism and then puts the blame back on you. You can’t change what happened in the past so why bring it up? If this is a recurring issue then you both need to talk about how you can create a strategy to prevent it continuing together – not blame one another.
5: Repeating yourself: You feel you’re in the right – so you keep on saying it. Partner: I’m really tired. Shall we call it a night? You: I just need to finish up a few more things. Partner: I hate to be the party-pooper, but I really am tired. You: I just need a few more minutes, okay? I won’t be long. Both parties want their own way and neither is seeing the other’s point of view – or giving the other party an alternative or offering a time frame. A better approach would be: Partner: ‘I’m really tired – do you think we can call it a night in 10 minutes?’ You: ‘I’m sorry. You should have said earlier. I’ll just finish up. 10 minutes is plenty.’
6: Denying responsibility: Insisting you are not to blame no matter whether your partner might be justified in flagging you on an issue. Partner: Where did you put the car keys? You: Why is it you automatically blame me every time you can’t find something? You’re the last person to have driven the car but you blame the other person for the fact you haven’t put the keys back in the usual place. Consider your partner didn’t mean to be critical and was just asking you a perfectly reasonable question – where are the keys? Do you think they will love you less if you say: ‘My bad! They’re in my handbag!’?
7: Body language: Rolling our eyes, smirking, crossing our arms over our chest, whining or stonewalling – ignoring our partner all together; all these demonstrate defensiveness and convey that we believe we are the aggrieved party and are intended to invalidate or dismiss our partner’s point-of-view. Usually body language defensiveness goes hand-in-hand with one or more of the above six tactics. Stonewalling is the most toxic and damaging to a relationship in the long term as it allows anger to fester and negates effective communication.
Whoever said relationships are hard work and if you’re not in one you’re not working had it right! But by looking at how we can avoid the defensive trap in ourselves and respond in a way that prevents defensive behaviour in others from escalating into a full-blown argument, we can not only enhance our love relationships but every other one we have as well! Remember: we all need boundaries but being too defensive only results in us having nothing left worth defending at the end of the day.
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