Here are some typical defensive responses to a complaint
Husband: “I felt like you were making fun of me at dinner with our friends tonight. I was embarrassed.”
Wife: “Don’t be so sensitive I wasn’t making fun of you. Everyone thought it was funny. You’ve made jokes about me at dinner before. I don’t know what the big deal is. Nobody thinks less of you.”
Wife: “I need more help around the house. I feel so overwhelmed with so many things to do.”
Husband: “Oh, and I don’t? I’m just as busy as you are. I never do anything, right do I? I do a whole lot more than most spouses.”
Husband: “You made decisions without talking to me about it first. Don’t I have a say?”
Wife: “So, I have to get permission to do anything now? It’s no big deal. You don’t talk to me about every decision that you make.”
The response of defensiveness is the result of anticipating or perceiving a threat. When we try to counter or deny criticisms in areas, we feel sensitive. It is a way of emotionally protecting ourselves.
We are defensive when we think our values, identity, or worth are questioned. Our brain goes into fight or flight mode when we think we might be in trouble. We perceive an attack, whether there is one or not.
Defensiveness may come across as being difficult, but it usually is just a self-protective response. Our natural impulse is to defend ourselves against the threat posed by being challenged on an issue.
Usually, one party acts defensively, and the other party responds defensively. Then there is a defensive volley back and forth. And nothing gets resolved. Defensiveness becomes a roadblock.
Instead of the issue being the issue, it gets mired down in who is right and who is wrong. It undermines our ability to identify a problem and act to solve it.
So, let’s talk about what causes some of our defensive behaviors. They can be complicated. Our behavior patterns come from emotional, mental, or personality issues or habits developed over our lives. Low self-esteem, narcissism, feelings of abandonment, or trauma that has left you hyper-vigilant to any perceived threat can be hallmarks of defensive behaviors. You may have seen the volley of defensiveness played out in your home, and it might be all you know. None of these are excuses, but understanding what is behind what we do is vital to changing negative behavior patterns.
The Gottman Institute calls defensiveness one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that predicts the end of relationships. Whether the accusation is fair or not, defensiveness shifts the blame and doesn’t find a solution to the issue. Consequently, conflicts don’t get resolved.
Dealing with your and your spouse’s defensive behavior takes effort and specific skills. Each partner has to first look at what causes their defensiveness and learn ways to cope with their feelings when approached with a complaint. Each partner also must see if they are doing something to elicit any defensiveness by the way they are approaching issues. Be clear; I’m not saying that you are always at fault when you are met with defensiveness. But there are ways that we say things that will cause defensiveness in most anyone.
Let’s talk about dealing with your defensiveness. First, look at yourself. Self-assessment is a great starting point. Think about your typical responses when your spouse lodges a complaint or has a comment you don’t like.
- Do you automatically take the defensive stance?
- Do you immediately go to excuses and justifications for why you did what you did, absolving you of any wrongdoing?
- Do you lob a complaint back?
- Do you generally see yourself as right and your spouse wrong most of the time?
- Do you minimize your partner’s complaints? “It’s not that big of a deal. You’re blowing this out of proportion.”
- Do you come back with rebuttals to hit your partner where it hurts, deflecting the complaint?
If you answered yes to any of those responses, you might have some work to do.
Don’t take it personally.
Stop taking everything personally. You might be thinking, “Well, you should hear how my spouse brings up a complaint!” I get that; I do. How do you not take an insult or a put down personally? What if I told you, you could.
You must realize that someone’s poor behavior has nothing to do with you. It says more about them than anything. But also be aware of villainizing a spouse for sharing their complaint.
Sometimes we get caught up with the “feeling” of an attack when there isn’t one at all. I used to perceive every complaint as proving the message in my head that I was stupid. A failure. I’d never live up to my husband’s expectations. My husband never said anything of the sort, but that was the message I was hearing. I was taking the complaint personally.
What is the root cause?
Third, begin to explore what is behind your defensiveness and deal with it. Self-awareness is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions and handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Doing work to have emotional intelligence takes digging inward and dealing with the messages you are making up in your head about conflict.
Are you sensitive to criticism because you were criticized by someone growing up? Does criticism or uncomfortable feedback subconsciously make you feel like something is wrong with you? Does it make you feel stupid? Does it make you feel like a child? Look at the feelings that come up for you. Explore them. Work with them.
Own Your Part
Finally, take responsibility for your part in a problem. If your spouse brings a complaint, listen closely to their feelings. Try to see it from their perspective. Ask yourself if you have played a part in the problem. If your spouse says, I don’t think we are spending enough time together. You might immediately think, I’m doing the best I can. And that may be true, but listen to the issue behind the complaint. Your spouse desires to have more time with you. That’s a huge compliment. Without the defensiveness that will be a roadblock to marriage, you have an opportunity to find a solution.
The Power of Words
Let’s shift gears here and talk about how you might be eliciting defensiveness in your spouse by the way you approach a complaint.
As a past English teacher, I love words, but the art is how you put them together in a way that hits the mark. Your word choice and delivery have a lot to do with the response you will get. Your words have the power to build up or tear down. That’s how powerful they are. It doesn’t mean that you will always have a response that fits your expectations, but if you use your words wisely, the greater chance you’ll have a better conversation.
Criticism and Contempt
The worst way to start a complaint is with criticism and contempt. These are two more horsemen that John Gottman states end relationships and will almost always be met with defensiveness.
There is a vast difference between criticism and a complaint.
A complaint is about a behavior or event. Criticism expresses negative feelings and opinions about your spouse’s character or personality.
A Healthy Complaint
“I felt ashamed at dinner tonight when you made fun of me. When you said … be specific, it hurt. Next time we have dinner, can you not use me for humor?”
It has all the elements of a healthy complaint. There were only “I” statements. A feeling was shared-embarrassment- about a specific event. This is a great formula to stick with, in sharing a complaint.
“You were so rude tonight at dinner. You made me look like a fool. How dare you treat me that way?”
Notice that the word “I” is never used. Only “You.” It starts by attacking the character and labeling your spouse as rude, not just that they did a disrespectful thing. And there is no feeling shared.
The other horseman is contempt. Contempt is when there is a sense of superiority over your partner. I am better than you. You should straighten up. It’s a form of disrespect and is usually the result of unresolved conflicts that have caused resentment.
Here is what approaching the complaint would sound like using contempt.
“How dare you be such a jerk at dinner! If you had any class or good sense, you’d keep your mouth shut. I would never do that to you.”
Here, you’ve labeled your spouse negatively. They are a jerk. Then there is superiority. I am better than you.
Not a great way to start a productive conversation that moves toward a solution.
The Formula of a Complaint
Here’s how I feel- only use “I” statements.
About this specific situation, use details and examples
And here’s what I need from you.
After that, you let go of the outcome. Yep, that’s what I said. Not to be repetitive, but even with the best delivery of well-chosen words, you might get defensiveness depending on the emotional intelligence of your spouse. And if the defensiveness becomes ugly, attacking, or emotionally abusive, walk away. It isn’t about you. Don’t take it personally. You have no power to change or control your partner’s response. Your responsibility is to follow the formula regularly and consistently. You are responsible for healthily communicating your truth every time, for you and them, no matter how they respond.
If defensiveness dominates conflicts in your relationship with your spouse, you need to make a concerted effort to work through it. If you don’t, you will continue to have the same roadblocks to finding solutions for issues in your marriage.
You and your spouse would benefit from learning and practicing the formula I set out for you in approaching your spouse with a complaint. If defensiveness is the go-to in your relationship, it is time you and your spouse took stock of your conversation about issues. Share this podcast with your spouse and discuss where your relationship is at present. Make a goal to practice these skills to ensure you have a healthy starting point for finding a solution. Defensiveness can be overcome. I know because my husband and I have done it.
If you and your spouse are finding yourself at an impasse and you don’t know where to turn, I have a 6-month intensive program for couples covering many of the topics I cover on this podcast. Together we will look at the current state of your relationship and assess where it could improve. Then we will put together a program designed specifically for your marriage.
You can go to http://www.reviveyourmidlifemarriage.com and find the pillars of my program. I also offer a free 1-hour call to have a chat about where you are and where you’d like to be. You’ll find a button on my website to schedule a no-obligation call to talk with me. Don’t wait. Make your future together better than it has ever been.