It’s Not Me, It’s You
Some of the most relationship-destroying comments in a relationship are the “innocent” ones.
“Oh yeah? Well, what about when you…”
“That’s not what I said!”
“Why are you making such a big deal about this?”
“I can’t believe you would say that about me!”
These comments are meant to proclaim one’s innocence and are an attempt to defend oneself, rather than work toward resolution.
These phrases, and so many more, express the essence of Defensiveness – one of the “4 Horsemen” marriage expert Dr. John Gottman has identified as major predictors of relationship dissolution. (The other behaviors that lead to divorce are Criticism, Stonewalling and Contempt.)
DEFENSIVENESS: PATHWAY TO UNHAPPINESS
Defensiveness is perhaps the most common Horseman that any of us use when we feel offended or indignant or unfairly picked on. It can flash up in a millisecond. Anytime we feel attacked, accused, blamed or misrepresented we are prone to become defensive.
While it may be an understandable reaction, it is extremely unhelpful to any relationship and escalates conflict, making it that much more difficult to manage.
How a couple responds when a conflict arises is key to whether the relationship is heading toward lasting happiness or unhappiness and, perhaps, even divorce.
CONFLICT IS NORMAL & HELPFUL
“Any two intelligent people will have disagreements” is a phrase I often use when counseling couples. Arguments and disagreements happen in even the most successful relationships. Conflict is normal, natural and to be expected; when handled well, conflict can be beneficial to a relationship. How?
Conflict generates strong emotions and reveals to us and our partner what’s important to us. After all, we don’t fight about what doesn’t matter to us. Conflict invites us to address issues as they arise, before evolving into bigger problems. The process of working through a problem can build greater understanding and intimacy between people.
Being able to manage conflict will ultimately increase trust and reinforce friendship.
While conflict can be helpful to a relationship, Defensiveness is not. Defensiveness arises when a person feels criticized, misrepresented, or perceives an attack.
It appears in one of 2 ways:
righteous indignation (how dare you! I don’t have to take this!) or
innocent victimhood (why can’t you see all the good I do?).
Whichever direction it takes, Defensiveness is a way of shifting the focus off of addressing the problem or complaint at hand and onto blaming your partner. It’s an unwillingness to take responsibility for your own part in the problem or for being part of the solution.
Defensiveness is a rejection of an invitation for growth and improvement. The underlying message from Defensiveness is blaming: “It’s not me, it’s you”.
Sometimes Defensiveness can be subtle if we’re using a soft tone of voice, or using words such as: “I didn’t mean to,” “I didn’t do anything wrong,” “Why are you attacking me?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” “I didn’t do it.”
If the conflict is escalating, you can be almost certain that Defensiveness is in the room.
Defensiveness may be something we learned growing up and can be habit-forming. It ends up being an effective way of avoiding problems rather than managing them effectively. Ultimately, Defensiveness makes things worse. And because it’s so common to all of us, Dr. Gottman has said “the most important skill we can learn is to down-regulate our Defensiveness.”
In other words, we need to learn how to calm and soothe our emotions.
ANTIDOTE TO DEFENSIVENESS
So, what to do instead? The Antidote to Defensiveness is to accept responsibility for our own part of the problem, however small we think it may be. This requires actively looking for our part, and asking ourselves questions such as:
“Is there any truth or validity to my partner’s view/experience?”
“Where is the nugget of truth?”
“What can I do to make this better in the future?”
Doing this requires an underlying belief that both our viewpoints are valid and important, even if we don’t agree or see it the same way.
Successful couples express valuing their partner’s feelings and experience with words like:
“Good point. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.”
“You’re right. I could have been more aware of your needs.”
“What you are saying is starting to make sense, tell me more.”
Feelings can quickly soften when these phrases are used in place of defensive ones.
We elevate our relationships to something uncommonly precious when we:
practice down-regulating our Defensiveness,
remind ourselves that our partner is just as important as we are,
see their viewpoint as equally valid as our own,
set aside our first, flash reactions and, instead, look at our own contribution to the problem and
are involved in the solution.
In doing so, we convey the message to our partner that they, their experiences and feelings matter to us. It shows that we cherish our partner above our own need to be “right” or “good” all the time. Replacing Defensiveness with Taking Responsibility strengthens the trust between you and demonstrates your commitment to your partner and the relationship.
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