More From Dr. Gottman – Defensiveness

We’ve been looking at the Four Horsemen from The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work by John Gottman, Ph.D. Today we’ll take a look at the third of the four negative relational interactions, defensiveness.

We can all think of times when we have responded to our spouse in a defensive way. We point out why something did or didn’t happen that way. We’re saying,

“Hey, it’s not my fault because…”

We go on to explain why we aren’t to blame. We deflect a perceived attack by shifting the blame to someone or something else.

“Yes, I said that, but it’s because you did this and caused me to say that!”

Defensiveness deflects the attack and changes the focus to someone or something else.

Dr. Gottman says that this rarely has the desired effect. The attacking spouse usually doesn’t back down, tending to ignore the excuses and continue the attack. The defensive spouse does not apologize and is trying to shift the focus off themselves. The battleground is set with repeated attack and defend, attack and defend cycles.

Are you thinking this sound a lot like your arguments? You bring up something to your spouse and immediately they’re defensive. They never admit to doing anything wrong, but instead come up with every excuse in the book to justify themselves.

If you have a habit of being in this kind of a cycle, try using the “take a break” approach. When you feel attacked, ask your spouse to tell you what they think you did wrong. Listen and repeat back what you heard. Then ask, “Is that accurate?” Listen only to clarify their perspective.  Ask, “Is there more?” When you both agree that you understand ask, “Could I have time to think and we can talk about it later today? I need time to reflect on what you are saying.”

Photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert

Photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert

Whenever things escalate into a tense hostile exchange, it is usually best to step away so that we can calm ourselves down. Remember that your relationship and closeness is more important than winning a particular argument. Make it your focus to have your relationship win.

Hopefully, your spouse will respond by giving you the time you need and not just continue the attack. Then use that time to truly self-evaluate. Be honest with yourself and take responsibility for your own wrong-doing in the matter.

If you recognize yourself as the spouse who usually is the attacker, I hope you will be convicted that attacking is not a loving way to approach your spouse. When you are in an argument, try asking questions that seek to understand why your spouse responded a particular way.  You may hear new data points that change your perspective.

Seek to understand, not attack. It may be true that they did something wrong, but be quick to forgive and give them space to come to that conviction on their own, not because you railroaded them in to conviction.

Stop attacking and start loving.

Navigating a Life Changing Event

Recently, and fairly suddenly, Alan and I chose to embrace some changes in our life that are having a big impact on us. Alan was laid off his job late last year and was pursuing another job. If that wasn’t enough our church’s leadership team fell apart and urgently needed help to fill in the blanks. Never ever did we contemplate Alan volunteering for the board of directors of a large church, but that’s what he did after we prayed, sought counsel, and agreed together that the Lord was leading him there.

Photo by Andy Stafiniak

Photo by Andy Stafiniak

Within a week he was attending several meetings a week. Evenings, mornings, long meetings, emergency meetings. Lots of phone calls, email and text communications. It was a very different schedule, sort of like when we prepared for our daughter’s wedding. Those last few months were non-stop and we never felt caught up.

We have always been extremely protective of our time alone for dates and intimacy and it took a few weeks to notice that this new schedule was taking a toll. We also felt the effect on our exercise goals that fell to a lower priority. We were tending to eat fast food on the fly. The long hours, less exercise, and poor food choices meant less energy for intimate time and getting everyday chores done.

Though this has been a big change for us, I know that some couples live in this state of busyness constantly and it doesn’t ease up for them. So temporary or constant, how can we navigate these times and keep our marriages fresh and passionate?

There are the obvious things:

  • Is there anything you can let go of?
  • Decide together if you should add something new.
  • Intentionally shut the phones off for time to connect.
  • Stop things that just waste time- TV, web surfing, gaming.

And schedule intimate time if you have to but be open to unconventional or spontaneous times. When a meeting cancels, don’t waste the opportunity! On the other hand, let go and be content if your time together gets postponed once in a while.

Most important are your attitudes. It’s easy to blame and resent your spouse when they change the plans. But that attitude will only hurt you both if you hold on to it. Don’t ever doubt your spouse’s commitment and love. Making assumptions about their intentions never helps. When your feelings get hurt or your hopes dashed, talk about how you feel

Photo by John Nyberg

Photo by John Nyberg

and work together to get the time you need.

And finally, don’t forget to plan for and go on that get-away time where you can relax and enjoy each other without any interruptions!