We have been examining four marital interactions that cause significant problems within a marriage, which John Gottman aptly labels “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The first rider was criticism, followed closely by contempt. The next horseman to come riding is defensiveness. It should be noted that these riders do not always march single file into a relationship; instead they take turns inflicting damage within the marriage.
In the middle of conflict, our gut-level reaction is to put on the boxing gloves. We want to defend our every action. Sometimes we get defensive by denying that we are responsible, making excuses or trying to one-up our partner’s complaint with a complaint of our own. We are masters at removing our own culpability in problematic interactions.
While it is quite normal to get defensive when conflict arises, it is a detriment to our relationships. In the middle of an argument, or as most people prefer to label them a “discussion”, we give ample reason as to why something is not our fault. This is how these “discussions” generally go when defensiveness is involved:
One spouse says to the other, “You did ______ (feel free to fill in the blank).” The other spouse replies, “Well, that wasn’t my fault. I would not have had to do ______ if you would not have done _______.” Then the other spouse says, “Oh, well that makes perfect sense.” End of argument.
It never works that way, does it? Being defensive continues to perpetuate an argument. Being defensive is really just blame shifting. It places the problem back on the other person. We blame them for the course of action we chose to take. “Well, if you hadn’t, then I wouldn’t have.” The truth is, no one else is to blame for our behavior. We always choose our behavior. How we act is always a choice. Yes, we can even choose to react in a way that is not defensive.
Defensiveness, criticism, and contempt, here we have a perfect storm brewing, and the final horseman has not yet ridden into town. So how can we deal with defensiveness?
First, what if we really listened to our partner when they had a complaint? We know it is easy to sidestep a complaint with shifting the blame, but this doesn’t address any problems. What if we listened to what our spouse had to say and examined our lives to see what needs to change? What if, instead of spending all of our energy coming up with excuses or trying to be heard, we simply focused on hearing what they are saying? Sometimes, we do mess up. At times, things are our fault.
When issuing a complaint of our own, maybe we can examine the nature of that complaint. Are we being critical? How can we let our spouse know there is a problem without attacking their character or demeaning them?
The goal of a “discussion” is to resolve problems in our relationships. Going on the attack or being defensive will never allow us to focus on and fix the difficulties in our marriages.
Marriage is about two people playing on the same team. It is impossible to be on the same team while one plays offense and the other defense. Maybe it is time to stop shifting the blame and look in the mirror. Sometimes we do mess up after all.
Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? -Matthew 7:3-4
Walk good. Live wise. Be blessed.