Relationship Minute: Practicing non-defensiveness

Responding and listening without getting defensive takes practice. It’s difficult! For so many, defensiveness is just a knee-jerk reaction rooted in the need to protect the idea of yourself as a “good person” with the right intentions. And it’s good to assume positive intent, especially when you’re interacting with your partner.

So it’s important to practice taking a step back and making sure you understand the situation before jumping to your own defense.

In the last Relationship Minute, we used this example:

“Did you remember to get toilet paper at the store?” 

So before you counterattack, respond with righteous indignation, or default to innocent victimhood, try taking a step back to assess.

I feel defensive because I did not remember to get toilet paper. Am I being criticized or am I perceiving this as an attack?
My partner isn’t criticizing me but I perceived an attack because I’m sensitive to the implication that I am lazy/forgetful/careless. Can I overlook that to keep this conversation on track? 

If you can’t overlook it, that’s fine, too. You could say, “I’m feeling defensive. I feel like you’re implying that I’m careless.” Then they can help clarify and together, you can get the dialogue back on track and the toilet paper back in stock.

Be patient with yourself as you practice. You may catch yourself reacting defensively often, but it’s catching yourself doing it that matters. If you note it soon enough, you could even ask your partner for a do-over.

“Did you remember to get toilet paper at the store?”
“Who are you, my mother?! …Actually, can I try again?”
“Sure.”
“I forgot. I can get some tomorrow if we’re not down to our last square.”

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The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Forms of defensiveness

Defensiveness is one of Gottman’s Four Horsemen. So what does a defensive response look like? Usually, it takes one of three forms: counterattack, righteous indignation, or innocent victimhood.

“Did you remember to get toilet paper at the store?” 

Counterattack: An escalation of conflict through scorekeeping.
“No, but you didn’t remember to take the garbage out last night so I guess we’re even.”

Righteous indignation: Impulsive, offended response to a perceived attack.
“I don’t see why I always have to be the one getting toilet paper. You use the bathroom just as much as I do.”

Innocent victimhood:Often disguised as whining, a rush to shame oneself and make the other person feel bad for the perceived attack. 
“I have so much going on right now and going to the store is so stressful, especially the toilet paper aisle! How can you expect me to remember?”

Of course, it’s much more difficult to respond non-defensively to criticism and there’s a difference between reacting defensively to a perceived attack and protecting your own boundaries.

The key to catching your own defensiveness is to pay attention to when you are potentially misinterpreting a statement or question as an attack.

Though the knee-jerk defensive response may be the same, there’s a world of difference between “Did you remember to get toilet paper at the store?” and “You forgot to get toilet paper at the store again, didn’t you? You’re so irresponsible.”

Related blog posts

The Relationship Minute is from The Gottman Institute. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Take responsibility

The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility, which may be one of the most challenging antidotes to adopt.

In fact, John Gottman says this:

“Down-regulating one’s own defensiveness is the ‘work’ in Making Relationships Work. It is always the challenge. It is important to note that [people in] all unhappy relationships have left a partner in pain and just gone on with life.

Instead, couples who make relationships work well adopt the motto that, ‘If you’re hurting baby, the world stops, and I listen. I’m with you.’ To summarize: Seeing our partner’s pain and getting in touch with our love is the way to down-regulate defensiveness and think that we might have some (even a smidgen) of responsibility!” 

Julie Gottman adds:

“When we take responsibility for words or actions that have caused distress, we are opening the door to changes we need to make in order to be our best selves. Defensiveness keeps the door slammed shut.”

So how can we take responsibility? Remember that you love your partner and use that to inform how you respond. Choose to try to see things from your partner’s perspective.

It’s a difficult skill to master but the conversation that follows will be your reward. You can even start by noticing when you’re feeling defensive and call it out: “I’m feeling defensive.”

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The Relationship Minute from The Gottman Institute, dated 23 April 2020. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning. 

Relationship Minute: Defensiveness

You may already be familiar with The Four Horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) but now that our context has shifted on a global scale, it’s worth taking a closer look at each and how they might show up at home. 

Let’s dig into Defensiveness. At its most opaque, defensiveness presents like so many playground retorts:
“I know you are but what am I!”
“No, I’m not!”
“I didn’t!”

When employed more subtly, it might sound like:
“You know how busy I’ve been! I’d do the dishes if I had time.”
“Don’t put words in my mouth. What I actually said was…”
“I wouldn’t have been too tired for our date night if I didn’t have to pick up after you all day.”

That last example is defensiveness when it starts interacting with criticism to get into the verbal tennis match of the attack-defend pattern. It’s a great way to get into an argument that goes nowhere.

It’s challenging not to be defensive. The impulse to defend your position, especially if you’re feeling wrongly accused, is natural. But defensiveness misses the point.

Defensiveness can quickly get you into a conversation aimed at seeking blame. And once blame is assigned, there are often feelings of someone “winning” and someone “losing,” which doesn’t serve your relationship. Understanding each other’s experiences and accepting responsibility will be much more fruitful.

The next time you’re feeling defensive, instead of investigating who’s to blame, challenge yourself to investigate your partner’s point of view.

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The Relationship Minute from The Gottman Institute, dated 28 April 2020. You can sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every Tuesday and Thursday morning.