Listening without being defensive is a fierce challenge. But if you can get better at it, your marriage can get better because of your effort.
This is part three of a four-part series — Four communication styles that will cripple your marriage.
If left unaddressed, John Gottman suggests defensiveness is one of the four communication styles that determines if a marriage will succeed, or fail. He calls the four styles — The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The four horsemen are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Defensiveness is an attempt to evade what you perceive as an attack — and in response — you defend yourself, your words, and your actions.
Evading criticism, your reaction makes sense. We all have at one point defended ourselves when unfairly criticized, or verbally attacked.
The type of defensiveness that’s harmful to your marriage deflects responsibility, and places blame on your spouse.
Tim: “We talked about this. You agreed to let me know when you have to work late, and will be late for dinner.”
Sandy: “You can’t expect me to quit what I’m doing just to text you. You could’ve easily sent a text to remind me. Back off, its not that serious.”
Defensiveness becomes a problem when you meet your partner’s complaint with a complaint of your own. It shows up in making excuses, cross-complaining, or repeating yourself without paying attention to what your spouse is saying.
Failing to acknowledge your spouse’s feelings is actively avoiding his or her point of view. Defending your actions escalates the conflict.
Trying to get your partner to back off, and just leave it alone, misses what could be an opportunity to connect. A complaint, which isn’t criticism, is your spouse expressing a need.
Complaints are acceptable — necessary.
The reason you get defensive is because it’s hard to hear complaints. They provoke negative emotions. We don’t like negative emotions, so we go out of our way to avoid them.
But reacting to the negative emotion without listening to what your partner is saying fuels the conflict you’re trying to avoid.
Defensiveness blinds you to the validity of what your spouse is saying. The immediate reaction to it brings out a response that encourages you to see yourself as the victim.
Ok. I get it. Defensiveness isn’t helpful. How do I avoid it?
Defensiveness is common, but it does get in the way of listening well.
You want to be in a marriage that values taking responsibility, apologizing, and expressing empathy.
Below are three ways to get started in slowing down defensiveness…
1. Call It Out. If you find yourself looking for inaccuracies, waiting for a pause to interject, interrupting, or wanting to argue point by point when listening to your partner’s complaint, you’re in defensive mode.
Paying attention to what’s happening inside of you helps you become an observer of yourself. You put yourself in a position to recognize rising defensiveness.
Then, simply, call it out.
Well, its not that simple. But the point remains…
Become aware of it.
And let your spouse know — “I feel myself wanting to be defensive. I need a few minutes.”
You listen poorly if you’re feeling defensive. Taking a few minutes, or even a couple of hours, to gather yourself will help more than harm. Just let your spouse know. Don’t just walk away.
2. Take Responsibility. Deflecting responsibility is a key component of defensiveness. Accept the role you played in the conflict…
”You know what. Yea, I probably could have said that differently.”
“I didn’t handle that well. I’m sorry for how I responded.”
Acknowledging your part let’s your spouse know you’re not interested in evading responsibility, and equally, not interested in placing the blame on him or her.
3. Be Curious. Approach your partner’s complaint with a lens of curiosity. Being curious does a couple of things…
It slows you down from immediately responding with a counter-complaint or criticism.
It allows you the opportunity to clarify what you think he or she is saying. It also communicates you care about what he or she needs.
You’re not interrogating your spouse, or giving him or her the third degree. Seeking understanding is the goal — “I’m having a tough time understanding your frustration. Can you say more about it?”
Learning to slow down defensiveness is an intentional act. It’s not easy. But when learned, you avoid a behavior that closes off connection.