Approaching life with an open-curiosity to what’s unfolding around you, (including new experiences);
Approaching life with a defensive-cynicism that blocks, avoids or tries to control experiences.
While it may be tempting to idealize the first approach, both have a place in life—there are certain conditions where a defensive posture is in your best interest (e.g. when someone is verbally attacking you). This said, defensiveness can become a hurdle for many couples and lead to marriage or relationship problems. Let’s see why.
When Defensiveness Becomes a Problem in Your Marriage
There are three ways in which defensiveness can lead to marriage/relationship problems:
- When defensiveness about a certain event lingers long after the event has passed (this might occur because you start to anticipate trouble even when you and your spouse/partner are getting along well);
- When defensiveness becomes triggered by a wide range of issues, small and large. (This shuts down your ability to be open to new experiences and feedback);
- When you fail to recognize your own defensiveness. (When you fail to take responsibility for your defensiveness, the potential for change and growth is closed.)
Why Defensiveness can be a Problem in Your Marriage
It’s hard to be open to your spouse’s/partner’s perspective and to be defensive at the same time. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that defensiveness and perspective-taking can never exist together—one erases the other.
Let’s look at some features of each.
Defensiveness reactions are inherently constrictive:
~Your focus and attention are narrowed (you see little else except the problem).
~You ready yourself for danger (to argue or to flee the situation).
~An anxious-stifling energy predominates.
~An anticipatory mindset becomes active that expects more danger/problems.
~Defensiveness is associated with an uncomfortable stress reaction (dramatic physical changes occur).
Perspective-taking is inherently expansive:
~Your focus and mindset are open to new experiences.
~You become readied for learning/growth.
~A playful-open energy predominates.
~An anticipatory mindset becomes active that invites alternatives and possibilities.
~Perspective-taking is associated with a relaxed or energetic physical state.
As you can see, a perspective-taking mindset is clearly favored over a defensive-cynical mindset. A healthy marriage/relationship requires two people who actively practice perspective-taking as well as take responsibility for when their defensiveness is getting in the way.
For a perspective-taking mindset to take hold, effective communication and mutual responsiveness to each other’s needs are essential. Try to become aware of your defensive reactions and how these reactions may be shutting down communication and blocking intimacy.
To help you make effective communication a regular part of your relationship, I’ve created two communication resources for couples (click each to learn more):
Wishing you and your relationship all the best,
Dr. Rich Nicastro