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Defensive behavior is one of the leading causes of on-going painful conflicts within a relationship, the type which can lead to long term damage. Defensive behavior sends the message to your partner that their experiences and ideas are wrong, and that you are in the right. However, as you may have seen, in these situations, a well meaning defense can quickly turn into a battle where each side is unwilling to give in.
The Communication Battle Attack:
History is full of those moments when a true defense was necessary. In romantic medieval times, when a person was attacked, they defended themselves. They pulled out their armor, a shield and sword, and prepared to do battle. This response was due their desire to protect their own safety. Thinking back to the previous situation, when during an interchange if your partner is in a defensive position, it is generally because they don’t feel safe and possibly feel attacked. This leads them to put on their armor for their own protection, and then pick up their own sword and attack. This situation is what I call a “Communication Battle.” Situations such as these break down the family unit and place the combatants on opposing sides, fighting against each other in a vicious pattern, one that creates little positive communication.
Defensive behaviors can also be a sign of deeper communication issues. Sometimes, no matter how carefully someone addresses an issue with you, you automatically go into defense mode. This common response is often learned at a young age; when tough situations arise, each of us naturally reacts in a certain way. This reaction becomes a crutch to help us through situations where we need help coping with our own insecurities. However, we often become dependant on our crutches, and choose to keep them around far longer than they are actually needed. If this sounds like you, it will take more of an effort to remove the crutch and change this behavior.
Defensive Behaviors, like many common communication issues often become exacerbated by poor communication skills. In relationships, it is often easier to point out how your partner needs to change than to work as a team to confront the issue together. The most important thing to remember in this situation is that people change when they want to, not when we want them to.
The key to creating change in unhealthy communication patterns is to create a supportive environment, where both partners are working to communicate effectively. This places responsibility on both partners, allowing each to have a stake in the outcome.
Relationships are like a baby mobile, if you tug on one side, everything changes. If you shift your behavior, your partner will automatically have to shift their behavior in response. Make sure you move in the right direction, allowing you partner’s behavior to move in the same way. All this change is often overwhelming, placing us in situations where we once again start to rely on our safe, comfortable, old crutches. However, no movement can happen if we continually rely on our crutches for support. It may be time to remember how to walk on your own again, leaving the crutches behind. Leaving the crutches behind is not easy, but do not fear, it can be done. Learning to walk unaided again takes a lot of willingness and self exploration, topics which a therapist can assist you with. In my practice, I foster a collaborative exploration in which I ask directing questions; questions which require you to look deep inside, and determine what your crutches are.
Quick Tips to Deal with Defensive Behaviors:
Keep track of how often you get defensive, use a notebook so an accurate record is kept. What did you say? How was your tone of voice? What was your body language saying? Keeping track helps you become more aware of your own behaviors. Awareness is Key in creating change in life.
Next time you begin feeling attacked, don’t surrender, withdraw, or attack back. Instead of becoming defensive try to understand where your partner is coming from. Ask meaningful questions about how they feel, and express how you feel.
Start Individual or couples counseling. You can gain insight and a larger understanding of where this and other negative behaviors come from, why they happen, and how to decrease them.
Experiment with trying something different. Next time you notice yourself becoming defensive, try doing something different. Notice how your partner reacts. Does he/she react differently? Where they less or more reactive? Look for the smallest change, because changes start small. Remember the mobile, and remember that each change will bring about more changes.
Of course, no one can be completely rid of their own defensive behaviors; however, we can always decrease our reactivity to create a safe and caring environment for our partner. The safer (emotionally) it is for your partner, the safer your partner will make it for you. They will follow by example.
My spouse gets really defensive…What do I do?
Defensiveness is one of the four toxins in communication, however; it is a common toxin found in almost all marriages. Happily married couples have less of the toxin than do couples who eventually divorce. The challenge is reducing your spouses defensiveness
Typically, a defensive response (words or action) suggests “wait a minute, slow down; I’m not with you on this; I don’t agree.” Defensive responses are common and normal in an argument or disagreement, in fact, it is associated with a healthy sense of self. Imagine a world where everyone agreed with everyone all the time. I purpose that would be boring as all can be.
Defensiveness is like traffic signals in a discussion: stop, proceed with caution, or go forward with what you are doing. Typically, defensiveness means proceed with caution. Responding to defensiveness in a manner that is de-escalating and soothing makes the difference. If defensiveness is increasing in the discussion, it is likely that it is being fueled (not all the time) but most of the time. There are some cases where a person is simply defensive all the time as a personality trait. This is rare. The majority of the time in marriages, when a couple is “chronically” in defend-attack mode, it is a result of ongoing toxic communication patterns and neither is slamming on the breaks to supply the much needed antidote. Defensiveness can also be delivered in a sweet sounding package, like a warm, nice tone of voice. Any response that is essentially a “Yes, but” is a defensive response no matter how it is delivered.
How to respond to defensiveness? Roll with it.
That’s right. Roll with it. Sound to simple? It is extremely difficult. There are two options; five second delay or agree with what is agreeable (Gottman, 2005).
If you are a man reading this, research has shown that if you wait five seconds before responding, you will likely be less defensive. Only FIVE seconds!!
Look at your watch and time five seconds. It sounds like a short period of time, but in what I call “relationship time” it seems like eternity.
Try it as an experiment next time the tension is rising.
Either men or woman can do the second experiment. Find something in the points that your partner is making with which you agree or make sense and then stop (temporarily).
For example: “I really hear your points on this one. There are a couple I really agree with such as…” OR “I never thought of it from that angle. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.”
Then STOP - Do not “BUT” and then begin stating your points.
Instead, elicit more information from your partner. “Do you have any other thoughts on this issue?”
Hear your partners points all the way through. Be patient. Avoid sounding sarcastic with the above. Your turn comes after you thoroughly understand your partner. After your partners turn, open with, “OK. I am wondering if you can hear my points on this issue and tell me what you agree with. We can argue the points of contention later. Let’s just find some common ground for starters – OK?”
Right now, if there is a defensiveness you are feeling when you read this (IE: “sounds like psychobabble, no one talks that way, I could never do that, my spouse would laugh their head off, my partner would never believe me if I did that, I am not giving in like that to him/her, my partner would never respond to me”) it means that you are entrenched in your position in the argument with your partner- which likely means the issue is very, very important to you and you may believe that by experimenting with the “Roll with it” you are somehow conceding or giving up. I assure you, that is not the case. I implore you to maintain your expectations and to argue for what you want. I am suggesting that how you are arguing is not working for you or your partner. Research shows that when giving up one’s expectations in marriage, the marriage begins a slow death.
Save your marriage.
Keep the Faith
Defensive People: Tips for Dealing With Them
The following tips may help you deal with defensive people:
Remember that most defensive people are really insecure. Let them know that you believe they are competent and worthy of their position.
Never respond with defensiveness. Instead, become an attentive listener, paying attention to both verbal and nonverbal messages. Reflect what the person has said by paraphrasing (ie, “what I am hearing is that you feel…”).
Never argue with someone who is in a mode of defensiveness.
Keep in mind that defensive people usually are acting from their subconscious and that they generally are not trying to create problems or difficulty. Defensive people often are working from a self-protective instinct and are trying to avoid others attacking them by preemptively attacking others first.
Do not expect the following actions to work—changing the subject, trying to interject humor into the conversation, or attempting to soothe the defensive person. You must stay on the topic of what is upsetting the person.
Avoid absolutes, such as “you never” or “you always.”
Move toward defensive people, not away from them, which proves that you are interested in improving the situation. Our natural inclination is to move away from defensive people, but this often compounds the problem by making them become more critical of us.
Never try to hide your intentions from defensive people, because they are extremely sensitive to this type of manipulation and can discern it more easily than the average person. Speak without hesitation, using neutral language without accusation, whenever possible. Always focus on the issue and not on the person.
Know that attempts to comfort defensive people by stating that they are too anxious and need to calm down will backfire. To defensive people, this means that you are not accepting them as they are, and that you are attempting to change or alter them, even during stressful times.
Do not play into the defensive individuals’ demands to explain yourself. Defensive people often use this technique to validate their position, by making it sound as though you either do not know what you are talking about, or you are making excuses for yourself or others. Keep your explanations to a minimum, and do not allow yourself to become emotionally upset by these demands.
Note: Dealing with continually defensive people often is emotionally exhausting. Defensive people may need outside help to deal with the cause of their defensive behavior.
Cope with a Critical Spouse
Do any of these statements describe your feelings?
___ You often feel that your spouse criticizes you unfairly.
___ You feel that your spouse consistently looks for nit-picking things to criticize.
____You feel that your spouse routinely criticizes you for things that have been blown out of proportion or are beyond your control.
If you answer “yes” to at least one of these statements, you may be living with a spouse who finds it easier to find fault than to praise. If you’re already doing your best to please your mate, this may feel like a “no-win” situation.
So what can you do? How can you live in harmony with an overly-critical spouse who doesn’t think that he (or she) is being unfair?
The following ten tips can help you devise a strategy to cope with the excess negative energy directed at you by your spouse:
Try to listen without getting defensive. Hear your spouse out and let him (or her) say what’s on his mind. It will only make things worse to become defensive and cut your spouse off prematurely. You want your spouse to feel “heard.”
Even though you may be thinking “Here we go again—same old gripes,” keep an open mind to the possibility that there may be a different twist this time. Fox example, perhaps a certain gesture, tone of voice, or oversight you weren’t aware of at the time has intensified your spouse’s critical reaction.
Recognize that your spouse’s perceptions are different from yours. And you can’t argue with a spouse’s perceptions or tell her that she’s “wrong” to feel that way. Launching a direct attack to convince her that she’s off-base will almost always fail.
Resist the urge to counter criticism with criticism in return. That will only add fuel to the fire and ensure that negative feelings will escalate.
Consider whether your spouse is making any valid points that you need to look at. It’s all-too-easy to get upset and decide that the criticism is off-base and miss the part of the criticism that may be valid.
Work on not taking the criticism so personally. This can be difficult because it feels so personal—after all, it’s directed at you.
But it’s not always just about you. Your spouse may really be irritated at herself but instead take her feelings out on you by throwing barbs of criticism in your direction.
Realize that just because your spouse criticizes you doesn’t mean you have to let that determine your mood or spoil your day. Don’t give your personal power away so easily.
You get to decide what to focus on, and you are responsible for how you feel. Your spouse can’t “make you feel bad” without your consent.
Schedule a time to talk with your spouse about your reactions to the constant criticisms. Tell him (or her) that frequent criticism doesn’t make you want to try harder.
Instead, it produces feelings of discouragement and negativity. State that over time, it could also negatively affect your passion and sexual relationship.
Write your spouse a letter outlining your concerns about the damage that constant criticism could do to your feelings of love and emotional intimacy. Use the “sandwich technique.” Start off the letter by expressing what you like and appreciate about your spouse.
Then state your concerns about the long-term effects that frequent criticism could have on your feelings toward your spouse and the marriage. Last, end by making more positive remarks and sharing how much you love your spouse and value your relationship.
Ask your spouse to go to marriage counseling with you. Say that you need to take care of some emotional debris that is accumulating for you in the marriage.
State that you want to schedule the counseling sessions so that your marriage can be the best possible for each of you. Taking this course of action is following the sage advice by Henry Ford: “Don’t find fault, find a remedy.” That’s a sure way to create a win-win situation for both you and your mate.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA