We have previously talked about Gottman’s first two “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—danger signs in the relationship—criticism and contempt. The next horseman that Gottman talks about is defensiveness. Defensiveness is a common reaction when being treated with criticism or contempt. However, Gottman says that’s what makes it so destructive—the “victim” doesn’t see anything wrong with it.
Defensiveness won’t necessarily help solve the real issue. Using defensive phrases, and the attitude they show, can escalate a conflict instead of coming to a resolution. Gottman said, “Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you.”
When a person starts to get defensive, they become hardened by the continual conflict and may become overwhelmed with emotions. This is called flooding and can be psychologically and emotionally painful. Once someone becomes flooded with emotions, it can take at least a half hour to calm down to be able to communicate rationally and calmly.
Some common acts of defensiveness are denying responsibility, making excuses, negative body language, blaming your partner and acting like a victim.
In the example in my previous blog, there was an argument starting about helping to clean the house after coming home from work. Keeping with the previous examples of household chores, let’s look at what happens when defensiveness enters the relationship.
Your spouse says to you, “Oh, don’t bother to get up and help. I’m sure your day was worse than mine and your time is more valuable than mine. I’m happy to be your slave.” Immediately you shoot back, “Why can’t I relax a little bit? I had a hard day at work too! You need to settle down and think about others for a change. I can’t read your mind.”
This statement is then attacking your partner, putting the blame back on them for not communicating earlier. But then they will also fire back their own criticisms. This can go for a while until emotions are run so high that eventually it can lead someone to shut off, or stonewalling, which we will talk about in the next post.
I think defensiveness might be the toughest of the Four Horsemen to avoid. Like Gottman said, you feel completely righteous in your stance and want to defend yourself against unwarranted attacks. But the problem is exacerbated because open communication becomes obstructed.
Just the other day, I found myself going into defensive mode with my husband. We have been looking around for a new car and my husband called me to tell me he found one he really liked. I listened and looked it up online and asked him a few questions about it and then we hung up. Later, he told me that he was kind of upset with how I acted on the phone. He was excited about the car and instead of being excited back I said things like, “Well it doesn’t have (blank)” or “This doesn’t look good” and it left him feeling rejected. I immediately got defensive and retorted, “I didn’t know you were that excited about it because you just sounded indifferent on the phone. Maybe if you had actually told me you liked it a lot I would have been more supportive. I was busy anyways, the baby was crying! And I was just trying to be honest with you; you don’t have to get so upset with me.”
As you can guess, I didn’t get a positive reaction back from my husband. I basically just told him it was his fault I wasn’t more supportive and he’s being inconsiderate of my feelings (though he never actually said those things!). It was a situation blown way out of proportion.
At the time I didn’t see myself as doing anything wrong. I thought I had every right to “tell my side” and my husband should be open-minded enough to see I shouldn’t be solely to blame. I wanted to show we were both at fault. But the problem with being defensive is you really aren’t showing that the problem was because of both parties, you are trying to prove that the other person has more fault than you.
The most important thing to remember with combating defensiveness is to be willing to accept blame and apologize. When two people are being critical, then defensive, critical, defensive (so on and so on) it will make any relationship impossible. But if someone (maybe you!) can be willing to give a little, it is a sacrifice that could mean the success of your relationship. Doesn’t that seem worth it?