Defensiveness is the second of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It typically shows up right on the heels of the first horseman: Criticism. (Click here to learn about the First Horseman of the Apocalypse here.)
Defensiveness is the trap my wife and I fall into most often.
Defensiveness is always an attempt to protect yourself from a perceived attack. A defensive response usually implies, “The problem isn’t me… it’s you!”
Defensiveness shows up in two different ways: Cross-complaining, and playing the innocent victim.
Here’s an example things of how things unfold when criticism and the cross-complaining form of defensiveness are in the picture:
“Would you clean up your dirty laundry, you always leave such a mess!” (Criticism)
“Oh yeah? Well what about all your dishes down in the sink, and our filthy car that you always leave your junk in?” (Defensiveness)
“Don’t even get me started on junk. I can barely even walk through the garage without tripping over one of your tools.” (Even more defensiveness…)
See how that works?
Let me rephrase that. See how that doesn’t work?
The other way to be defensive is to whine or play the role of the innocent victim. This may include statements like, “You’re always picking on me,” or “I guess I just can’t do anything right.”
Most of the time, phrases like this are used in an attempt to score pity points, or get validation from your partner while taking the focus off of the problem.
Defensiveness can send you into a nasty endless spiral. It’s always about avoiding taking responsibility and shifting the blame to someone else.
Defensiveness will turn your marriage into a conflict dumpster fire.
The masters of marriage know how to combat defensiveness. They do it by taking responsibility for at least some part of the problem.
Here’s an example:
Jane called Andy at noon and asked him what time he’d be home from work so she could plan what time to start cooking dinner in order to have the whole family eat together.
He told her he’d be home by 5:30, 5:45 at the latest.
Then, right before 5:00, Andy’s boss came into his office and dropped a big, last-minute project on him. It was the difference between keeping a big client and losing them. Andy jumped into the project hoping that if he worked fast enough he wouldn’t be too late. He lost track of time, and at 5:50 his phone rang.
It was Jane. She was wondering if he was almost home.
“Actually,” Andy said. “I haven’t left yet. My boss gave me a big project at the last minute.”
Jane was obviously hurt and frustrated. “Why didn’t you call and tell me?”
“I didn’t even think about it. It’s just been crazy here this afternoon.”
“Too crazy to even text me?” She snapped.
“Look, I’ve been working hard all day to provide for the family. Give me a break. It’s not like I can just tell my boss ‘No.’”
You know where this conversation is going… absolutely nowhere. And neither partner is going to walk away feeling good.
On the other hand, what if the conversation went like this:
We’ll start over in the middle…
Andy looks at his phone and it’s his wife calling…
“What, was work so crazy that you couldn’t even text me?” Jane snapped.
“Actually, no probably not.” Andy said, “I’m sorry. Yeah this is a big, last-minute project, but still I should have called. I dropped the ball big time on this one. That was really inconsiderate on my part.”
Jane heard the remorse in Andy’s voice. She knew he knew he’d screwed up. “It’s ok honey, I understand. My feelings are hurt, but I’ll get over it. When can I expect you home?”
“I should be out the door in 30 minutes. I’ll set a timer as soon as I hang up the phone with you. And I’ll talk to my boss tomorrow about cutting out early from work on Friday. I’ll plan a date, and book a sitter to make up for blowing family dinner tonight. I love you, babe.”
“Love you too, honey.”
Taking responsibility deescalates tension, and gets rid of any reason for defensiveness. It opens the doors to connection, empathy, teamwork, and understanding.
Sometimes it’s really hard to take responsibility. Especially in the moments where you feel convinced that you’ve done nothing wrong.
Maybe you feel like the one who’s been hurt.
Some of the most difficult times in your relationship will be when both you and your partner are feeling hurt and defensive. Your defensiveness will start spiraling out of control and your emotions will ricochet off each other.
These are the times where you have to dig deep.
Despite your hurt, you have to take ownership. Even if it’s small. Something like, “Yeah, I could have said that better.” Or, “I can see how I could have come across as being a jerk when I acted that way.”
In the moment, it sucks to be the one who takes responsibility first. But you’ll quickly find that once you’re willing to own up to your part in a conflict, your partner will often soften and reciprocate.
That’s when the magic happens. Suddenly you start moving closer together and connecting instead of being driven apart.
Your conflict has magically turned into connection.
Now, Let’s Apply This
Everyone is defensive from time to time. Sometimes we cross-complain. Sometimes we make ourselves the innocent victim.
Think of a disagreement or conflict you’ve had recently. Maybe it’s with your partner, or your boss, your child, or a friend. How did defensiveness show up in that conversation? What could you have taken responsibility for instead of making excuses or deflecting the responsibility to someone or something else?
This post was previously published on Growth Marriage.
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