Setting: The Six Elements That Determine the Tone of Your Love Story
Element #3: Defensiveness vs Validation
Defensiveness is the counterpart to criticism and contempt in a marriage. This self-protective strategy manifests as an effort to explain, rationalize or minimize the significance of your behavior in the eyes of your spouse. Defensiveness is any reaction to your spouse that disrupts their expression and/or constrains the process of you coming to an understanding of your spouse's position. It is typically a self-protective reaction to an expression from your spouse (nonverbal or verbal) that you experience as attacking, blaming or criticizing. Although defensiveness is a fairly predictable reaction to criticism and contempt, in a relationship that’s struggling even disagreement can evoke a defensive reaction. This highly destructive coping strategy is more common among men than women and usually precedes some form of withdrawal from an interaction. Most defensive spouses don’t recognize what they’re doing. More often than not, they feel that they are simply explaining their behavior or perspective. However, explaining is only one of many forms of defensiveness. Blame-shifting, counter-attacking, minimizing, yes-butting and justifying are other common manifestations.
Before his wife spoke a word, Mark could see that he was “in trouble”. As the words came out of her mouth, “You’re late!”, he readied his response. “You’re right. I said I’d be home by 5:30 and I’m not, but I got waylaid on the way out of the office by Joe and you know how he can be (yes-but). Then traffic on 75 was bad and it took longer getting out of town than it usually does (blame-shifting).” “You could’ve called.” Ellen quickly retorted. “I’m only 30 minutes late and I don’t understand why this is such a big deal (minimizing),” Joe countered.
Elaine saw what was coming before she even heard the garage door go up. It had been a challenging day with the kids and the pile of dirty clothes in the laundry room was no smaller now than when Jim had left for work that morning. “So, what did you do today?” Jim said as he greeted her in the living room. She knew where this was going. “No. I didn’t get any laundry done today. The kids were tired and cranky all day. If you gave me a little more help at night and we got them down on time, I could probably get more done during the day(blame-shifting).” “Aw, c’mon!” Jim countered. “I’m the one working all day to pay for this house! Is it really too much to expect that you’d keep it clean.” Elaine responded, “And why didn’t you get the oil changed in my van yesterday like you said that you would! I’m not the only that’s dropping the ball here (counter-attack)”
Proverbs 18 says, He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame. The problem with defensiveness is that it precludes understanding and derails dialogue. When one person is upset within a relationship, what they need first and foremost is to be understood. In some instances, this is all that is needed. In others, it is a critical starting point to resolution, healing or growth. However, for the individual who is inclined to become defensive, allowing one’s spouse to be disappointed or angry – for even a moment – often feels intolerable. It is not unusual for men, in particular, to experience any negative emotion which their spouse displays as an indictment of their performance or behavior as a husband. “When I see her tears, it feels like I’ve failed”, more than one husband has told me.
At such times, the impulse to defend yourself feels like the only way of retaining any sense of adequacy or worth in the eyes of your spouse. Defensive statements are offered in the hope that they will redeem your standing. Predictably, though, a defensive reaction shuts down communication and blocks one’s spouse from finding the understanding, validation and reassurance they need. Defensiveness suggests that your spouse is wrong in their understanding, perception or experience of an event or interaction. The more persuasive a defendant is in presenting their case, the more likely their spouse is to feel “crazy” for their own reactions. In response, it is common for your spouse to argue all the harder to express their original feelings. Hurt, fear and anger only escalate in the face of defensiveness, thus provoking further defensiveness. This quickly escalates to an attack, defend mode that is not only destructive to intimacy, but frustrating for all involved.
The alternative to defensiveness is understanding and validation. You may not always agree with your spouse’s position on an issue and it is very likely that you will not react to particular situations in the same way they do; however, you are still quite capable of understanding why your spouse might feel, think and react in the way that they do. Unless your spouse is floridly psychotic, there is a sensibility to their reactions and with a modest investment of energy and time, you can understand them. At those times when you find yourself feeling a need to defend yourself, stop and listen. Hear them all the way out, asking clarifying questions along the way. Keep listening until their position makes sense to you and until they feel like you get it. Then, and only then, should you begin sharing your own perspective. However, in most instances what you’ll find is that by the time that your spouse feels understood and validated, they will have so softened their position that no further dialogue is needed.
My wife is a rule follower and it upsets her when I speed. When I have sensed her irritation with me in the past, I have been quick to defend myself. “Stop trying to tell me how to drive!” (counter-attack) “You just need to relax!” (blame-shifting) “You’re such a legalist!” (counter-attack) “I feel safer when I’m driving a little faster than everyone else.” (rationalization) “Relax! I’m barely going 10 over!” (minimizing) However, as I have grown less defensive across the years and been able to hear her out, I’ve been surprised by what I’ve learned about her. In contrast to my suspicions, she doesn’t really believe that I’m a bad driver who needs reproof and remediation. She isn’t judging me nor is she trying to control me. Rather, she’s concerned that I’ll get an expensive speeding ticket. And, given that I’ve gotten about 15 speeding tickets across our three decades together, that’s a reasonable concern to maintain. Further, when I remember that she grew up as a Missionary Kid whose family had to keep a tight budget, I don’t have a hard time understanding why frugality is a strong value for her. So, even though I am not personally frugal and I still prefer to drive on the fast side, I can certainly understand why she feels and reacts the same way that she does. So, I make a point of expressing my understanding of her concerns as I validate the anxiety and frustration she is experiencing. “Yup. I get it. Your tense because you don’t want me to get a ticket and there’s no sense in handing any more of our money over to the government.” My understanding and validation, in turn, defuse her frustration and preempt any tension or conflict in the relationship. Further, as I have laid my defensiveness aside and come to understand her better, I’ve found myself motivated to find solutions to our dilemma. At one point, we adopted a friend’s rather creative recommendation that we build a speeding ticket line item into our budget (in ticket-free years, the saved money was designated to fireworks!) and more recently I’ve simply been moderating my speeds. In either case, its not that my wife’s position on the speeding debate has persuaded me to change (although some would suggest that it should have); rather, because I love her and want her to feel relaxed with me, I’m moved to do things differently
- Jeff Pipe
If you want to learn more about this topic or how you can make your marriage into an Epic Love, consider participating in an Epic Love retreat.