It can happen during the most mundane of conversations: You and your spouse are discussing the laundry or your kids’ upcoming school projects, and suddenly they say something that suggests you’re not doing your fair share.
Bring on the righteous indignation and defensiveness! You feel like they’re pointing fingers and perceive it as an attack. Unfortunately, that knee-jerk reaction is a bigger problem than you might expect. According to renowned researcher John Gottman, defensiveness is one of the greatest predictors of divorce there is.
For 40 years, the psychology professor and his team at the Gottman Institute have studied couples’ interactions to determine the key predictors of divorce — or as Gottman calls them, “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” These communication sins are surprisingly common in most marriages: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, the term for emotionally withdrawing from your partner.
Gottman describes defensiveness as any attempt to defend oneself from perceived attack. That’s an easy mode to slip into, though; how do you curb the defensiveness before it becomes a bigger issue than it needs to be in your relationship? Below, marriage experts share their best advice for addressing it.
1. Don’t raise your voice.
“When you feel defensive, you have an instinctual urge to raise your voice. This comes from thousands of years of evolution. When you raise your voice it makes the other person feel more fearful and puts you in a dominant position. But you don’t want to make your partner feel ill at ease so instead of raising your voice, try to deliberately lower it. This will make you less defensive and make your partner less defensive, too. And you’ll be surprised how much better your conversations will go.” ― Aaron Anderson, a marriage and family therapist in Denver, Colorado
2. Ask yourself: Why am I getting defensive?
“Oftentimes when we’re defensive, we’re reacting to a wound we have received previously in life. It’s not uncommon for things we are defensive about as adults to relate to dynamics from family of origin. The paradox of intimate adult relationships is that we tend to choose partners who will evoke some of those very same frustrations and pains. It’s the work of an individual to understand where the need to become defensive originates from and address those underlying hurts and needs. It might not actually be your partner who is such a threat. Tuning into your own internal vulnerabilities is the first step to addressing, and preventing, the need for defensiveness.” ― Liz Higgins, a marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas
3. Instead of planning your next counterargument, actively listen to what your partner is saying.
“When someone is ranting and raving, it’s easy to plan your mental counter attack, but when you do that you are no longer listening to them and the message they’re trying to get across might get lost. Try to postpone your agenda and listen for points that make sense to you. Then let them know what makes sense. “ ― Danielle Kepler, a couples counselor in Chicago, Illinois
4. Stay on topic. Don’t bring up other things you’re annoyed about in your marriage.
“Remember what you’re arguing about. When people become defensive they have a tendency to lose sight of the problem at hand and bring up all kinds of other problems in an attempt to put the other person down and win the argument. When you do this to your partner you’ll find yourselves arguing in circles. Stay focused on the problem at hand and resist the urge to bring up other things, no matter how related you may think they are.” ― Anderson
5. Take responsibility for your part in the argument.
“I find that couples in my practice who are defensive really want their good intentions to be understood. As a result, when their partner expresses a need, they are quick to explain the reason they fell short, denying any responsibility and minimizing the problem. Sometimes they even feel like a victim and express that no matter what they do, it will never be good enough. This makes their partner feel unimportant and dismissed, causing resentment to build up. Instead, I ask couples to repeat their partner’s concern, acknowledge how they could feel this way, take responsibility for any part and respond to their request. ― Kari Carroll, a marriage and family therapist in Portland, Oregon
6. Hold the “but.”
“Using the word ‘but’ in an important conversation is one of the biggest communication no-nos. Every day I hear clients say something like ‘what you’re saying makes sense but...’ followed by reasons why their partner is wrong or doesn’t make sense. When you do this to your partner, you’re completely negating any validation you gave. You’re also demonstrating that your concern is more about what you want to say and less about what your partner is saying. If you are about to say ‘but’ just stop. Say ‘what you’re saying makes sense’’ and end the sentence.” ― Elizabeth Earnshaw, a marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
7. Don’t intellectualize.
“I often find that people get stuck talking logic. They’ll say ‘I disagree with that one part of what you said’ or ‘You didn’t use that word correctly.’ Intellectualizing like that is a mistake. The happiest couples look for ways to honor and respect some part of their partner’s request and get to yes.” ― Carroll
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