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.