Defensiveness is a natural reaction.
Everyone has heard a cat hiss or a dog growl when they sense a threat. Maybe you’ve even been the unfortunate victim of a skunk’s smelly defense mechanism.
The Indonesian mimic octopus has quite an impressive defense system. This remarkable creature fools potential predators by impersonating other animals or objects. It can change its shape, color, and even behavior to imitate a lionfish, sea snake, sole, jellyfish, and more.
People may not change shape or color when threatened, but we’re all familiar with that urge to protect ourselves when we feel attacked, aren’t we? It’s a built-in survival instinct.
But it’s one thing to defend ourselves or our loved ones when our lives are in danger. It’s another thing altogether to react defensively every time we have a disagreement with our spouse.
While defensiveness may be a universal feeling, it is also an enemy of intimacy in marriage.
In fact, psychologist and author Dr. Harriet Lerner asserts that “defensiveness makes it impossible to truly know our partner or be known.”
It is tempting to react defensively when our spouse is upset about something we have said or done. We’re all guilty of it at times. We feel unsafe at that moment, and that feeling triggers a knee-jerk response that can be hard to control.
In defensive mode, we try to identify flaws in our spouse’s complaint. We’ll try to deflect blame as we “build a case” to defend ourselves. We may even remind them of their own inadequacies for good measure.
In short, we refuse to accept responsibility for any part we may play in the problem because we feel threatened. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help anything in the long run.
Defensiveness puts up walls that separate us rather than drawing us closer together. It causes us to withdraw from each other, causing a loss of connection and intimacy. At first, we may not even realize that a separation has occurred. And over time, those walls can begin to feel almost “normal.”
To keep this from happening, we have to recognize when we are feeling defensive. If we can do this, it will enable us to have more control over our emotions and our response.
What to try instead
Dr. Lerner suggests several strategies to try when we feel defensive. Here are five tips from her list:
• Make a conscious effort to breathe more slowly and deeply.
• Try to avoid interrupting.
• Don’t counter with criticism.
• Take responsibility for your part in the conflict.
• Let the other person know they have been heard.
Many things can spark disagreements and misunderstandings in a relationship, and none of us will react perfectly all the time. Overcoming feelings of defensiveness can be hard. But it’s worth it to keep trying.
As we learn to listen with more empathy during a disagreement and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our spouse, we move toward greater intimacy. And when we resist the inclination to react defensively, we are making a choice to fight for our marriage.
Another way to move toward a healthier relationship is to take a marriage course together. Couples who take our marriage courses report positive growth in communication, intimacy, and commitment. Take our free quiz to find out which course will be most helpful for your marriage.