Couples can easily enter into unhealthy communication patterns where openness (the ideal) gives way to strained-defensive ways of relating—we’ve all been there and done that. In a previous Effective Couples Communication article, I described the specific pitfalls of defensive communication and how it can erode the health of your marriage/relationship.
One of the most important steps in reversing defensive communication patterns is to realize that you are actually being defensive with your spouse/partner.
When our partners try to shine a light on our defensiveness, it usually backfires and only makes us more defensive—humans don’t like it when our foibles are pointed out; plus when the person you’re already annoyed with tells you that you’re messing up (being defensive), you’re not likely to accept this unsightly reality.
Couples Communication: 5 Blocks to Owning Your Defensiveness
1) I’m Always in Control of Myself!
When we enter into a defensive mode of communicating, we’re not in control of ourselves: Our emotions, verbalizations, and body-language all seem to take on a life of their own.
And, as a rule of thumb, we don’t like admitting that we’re feeling out of control–this may be particularly difficult for men who value self-control. Self-control is frequently seen as a sign of maturity, dignity and emotional health, whereas a lack of control is us behaving at our worst—childish and close-minded. Why would anyone admit to that?
2) But I’m Not a Defensive Person!
It’s not very appealing to act defensively. Often, our defensive behavior clashes with our most cherished values—the self-image we want to present to the world, the person we strive to be, our best self. For instance, you may see yourself as someone who is level-headed, or compassionate, or open to new experiences and feedback; and since all these values directly clash with defensiveness, you may refuse to take ownership of a behavior that contradicts your perceptions of yourself.
Sometimes our self-image (or self-ideals), especially when we rigidly cling to them, blind us to certain unrecognized realities.
3) But I’m Not to Blame!
Rather than solving a particular marital or relationship problem, our defensiveness usually fans the flames of what is troubling the relationship. If this statement is true, then our defensiveness (and how we are acting) is part of the problem (or, at best, our behavior is making the problem worse). Typically, we don’t like to see ourselves as part of the problem and may deny the ways in which we contribute to a breakdown in communication or to what is ailing our relationship.
4) But I’m Justified!
You can, of course, make the argument that there are times when defensiveness is justified. And while there may be a thread of truth to this position, the problem is that most of us feel totally justified when in defensive mode. By its very nature, defensiveness restricts our vision—it fuels our indignation, righteousness, and, at times, feelings of superiority. This can prevent you from acknowledging any part of your spouse’s/partner’s viewpoint because you refuse to see that there just might be a grain of truth in what your partner is saying.
Feeling justified isn’t an objective truth, it’s a feeling, it’s your feeling, and it’s a feeling that can blind us from taking ownership and responsibility for our own unreasonableness.
5) But Someone Has to Be Right!
The right-versus-wrong mindset is alive and well for too many couples. This mental lens is problematic for several reasons: It fosters an atmosphere of competitiveness between partners (a “better than” attitude), it creates overly simplistic, black-and-white “solutions” to complex issues, and it undermines the empathy and mutual understanding needed for relationship survival.
Seeing your spouse/partner as “wrong” about his/her perspective or feelings is a blatant form of defensiveness that is guaranteed to lead to a communication dead-end.
As you read the above five hurdles to taking ownership of defensiveness, do you see yourself in any of them?
Acknowledging that you might fall victim to one or more of the above isn’t easy, but it’s necessary for the survival and health of your relationship. When it comes to love and effective couples communication, ownership of our defensive patterns of communication is essential. Give it a try for the sake of your relationship’s health!
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- Check these Assumptions at the Door! The Four Mindsets that can Topple Your Relationship.
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Dr. Rich Nicastro