Defensiveness (v.) - Relationship Killer
In my previous blog entry on relationship killers, we looked at how criticism can be lethal to any relationship. Defensiveness may just be criticisms evil twin, and just as deadly for a relationship over time.
Much like criticism, defensiveness is often in present in many relationships, even healthy ones. However, a defensive response over time can create serious wear and tear on a relationship.
What is a defensive response?
A defensive response may seem self-explanatory. A response towards your partner that reactive in nature. Three main types of defensive responses are fairly common in relationships: counter-attack, denial, and victimizing.
A counter-attack is often a jab directly back at our partner, responding in a critical fashion as well. For example, our partner criticizes our lack of ability to put away the dishes. We of course noticed their inability to take out the trash and slam them back with it. “Well you didn’t take out the trash yesterday either.” A counter-attack is very much a “well, you too!” mentality.
Often times when we sense a critical response from our partner, we are triggered by other experiences in our life when we felt like we're being criticized, creating a shame response. One of the ways in which to reduce that feeling is to shift the blame back to our partner. In this critical-defensive pattern it becomes the blame game.
Sometimes the response is not a directly harsh as a counter-attack to our partner’s criticism. Presented with that same shame feeling, we deny any responsibility. Instead of perhaps directly shifting the blame back to our partner, we shift the blame to other circumstances. Many times in this form of denial, we begin to make excuses. “Well, I only did that because of xyz”, or “But xyz”.
The final type of blame is a little less obvious than the other two. Often when we are acting the victim, we do not even realize we are being defensive towards are partner. But nonetheless, we are denying responsibility, rationalizing why something happened.
Victimizing often is present when we find ourselves whining. We all have been a little whiny to some degree. It’s natural. However, when we find ourselves playing the victim and not taking responsibility for our role in the relationship, it controls the conversation and makes it difficult for our partner to heal or repair the relationship. Examples of playing the victim in an argument may look like “You’re right, I’m just a horrible person, I can’t do anything right”.
How Do We Recover?
The good news is, we can change these behaviors. Even when our partner is still being critical, we have an opportunity to repair the conversation and turn the conversation around.
Defensive responses may not have started the argument, but are almost always responsible for elevating the argument to the next level. Whether you tend to be more critical or defensive in your relationship, we both need to do our part in order to heal the relationship.
If you find yourself being more defensive in your conversations, look to find any piece of what your partner is saying and validate their experience. Perhaps there is some truth to what they are saying and you can take ownership in your part of the problem.
This does not mean we have to agree with our partner, or even like how they presented the problem to us, however we can still express empathy and validating our partner’s feeling, allowing them to be heard. You have to hear to be heard.
All this takes time and practice. Your relationship did not get like this overnight and it sure won’t change overnight. Try to find small moments where you can validate your partner’s anger, or empathize with their concern, or maybe even take ownership in your role of the problem. This may be challenging to do in the heat of the moment in an argument. Make sure to practice not becoming flooded during an argument to allow yourself to be successful in an argument.