Questions have power. They can open our minds up to new possibilities and ways-of-being, they can alter the course of our thoughts and shape our behavior in positive ways…
…and questions can have the opposite effect, shutting us down with the force of a jackhammer.
And some questions aren’t questions at all, they’re really statements or proclamations disguised as questions.
Here’s an all-too-common example of a statement pretending to be a question that never leads anywhere useful (unless, of course, your goal is a break down in communication):
“Why are you being so defensive?!”
What is the real message behind this non-question? Probably something like:
“You’re reacting in a negative-combative way and it’s totally uncalled for—you should be having a different reaction from the one you’re having, so knock it off.”
At least this is what the person on the receiving end of “Why are you being so defensive?” hears. This non-question is one of the most invalidating string of words you can say to your spouse/partner.
Relationship Help: What is defensiveness?
Remember, if your spouse/partner is being “defensive,” s/he feels attacked or treated unfairly in some way. A defensive person is trying to protect him/herself by either covering up emotionally (not listening, shutting down, deflecting, withdrawing) or by going on the offensive (making counter-arguments, becoming angry).
People who feel emotionally safe in their relationships and understood by their spouses/partners typically don’t feel the need to react defensively.
In couples communication the term “defensive” (as in, “Why are you being so defensive“) is no longer a neutral or benign term used to describe the other person’s need for self-protective action. Instead it’s become a dig, a verbal left-hook, rather than a question born out of curiosity and designed to open up a meaningful dialogue.
Let’s put the term “defensive” to rest and replace it with…
I think it’s a good idea for all of us in relationships to replace the word “defensive” with the word “protective.”
This captures more clearly what the “defensive” person is actually doing (protecting him/herself from something that feels distressful) – and the word “protective” doesn’t come with the pejorative baggage that the word “defensive” now has when couples use the word.
Try this on for size:
“It feels to me as if you’re being self-protective right now, and I’d like to understand why.”
You can even ask yourself this question next time you feel your emotional guard going up with your spouse/partner.
Wishing you and your relationship the best,
Dr. Rich Nicastro