Not Defending Does Not Equal Surrender

Posted on November 7, 2013


In a number of posts, I have made reference to John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  Gottman has been studying for over 30 years the ways that couples interact and has been able to note what separates “the masters of relationship” from “the disasters.”  In the course of his research, he was able to identify four patterns that were so detrimental to the long term health of the relationship that he labeled them “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  These are 1) criticism, 2) contempt, 3) defensiveness, and 4) stonewalling.[1]  These patterns have been found to be extremely reliable predictors of divorce.  The good news is that couples who have fallen into these patterns can learn to avoid them as well.  This post is about defensiveness.  My point is not just that defensiveness is damaging and should be avoided, but that avoiding defensiveness does not mean surrendering your voice and your power in the relationship. 

Defensiveness occurs most frequently with its partner, criticism.  The natural tendency when one feels criticized is to defend.  This can be a natural reaction when one feels misjudged, when your partner is criticizing you for your role in the conflict and ignoring his or her role, or when your partner has the facts all wrong.  When we feel that our character is under attack, we also feel the need to defend ourselves.  Over time, there may develop topics that merely the mention of which can evoke a defensive reaction. 

If this is a natural (and seemingly logical) reaction, why is it a problem?  It is a problem because it leaves your partner feeling unheard.  It also leaves you both feeling emotionally disconnected.  It undermines your closeness and emotional safety.  Essentially, if your partner brings a complaint to you and you defend, your partner feels that their position has not been heard and understood.  Your partner is having an experience that is on some level distressing and brings that concern to you.  If you become defensive, you are making the interchange about you rather than about your partner’s experience.  Let’s say that the complaint is about something you did or did not do, and your partner is upset with you about it.  Your partner is essentially asking for you to “See what this meant to me.  Understand why I am upset.”  This is a protest of the disconnection your partner is feeling.  It is a bid for connection.  Your response can either be about communicating or seeking understanding of your partner’s experience, or it can be about you and your experience of feeling attacked or misunderstood.  Gottman has quipped that for the masters of relationship, when their partner brings them a complaint, they respond with, “That’s interesting; tell me more about that.”  The words here are slightly tongue in cheek, but the wisdom is accurate.  The point is to use this as an opportunity to make your partner feel heard and understood.  “You’re really upset about me being late again” is a more effective response for connection than “Don’t even start with me.  You don’t know the kind of day I have had.”  The first is about your partner.  The second is about you. 

Are you trying to tell me the secret to staying married is to just suck it up all the time and give up my voice in the relationship?  Absolutely not.  Understanding begets understanding.  Once your partner feels understood, you may and should share your view of the situation.  It is a normal part of the human experience to want to be understood by one’s partner.  In our most intimate relationships it is desirable to be able to turn to our partner and ask for our emotional needs to be met.  One of these emotional needs is to feel understood.  This is the essence of intimacy and it is closely tied to feeling loved and valued in the relationship.  After your partner understands that you “get it” (i.e. understand what this meant to him or her), then you ask to share your view of the situation and how you experienced it.  There should be room there to share what it was like to feel misjudged if that was the case. 

Defensiveness can communicate a number of messages that are harmful to the relationship.  The first is simply, “No, you’re wrong.”  “You’re perception is incorrect.”  “You should not feel the way you do.”  If your partner brings a complaint to you and your immediate response it to defend, you are denying them their experience.  Emotional reactions are neither right nor wrong, they just are.  Defending is communicating to your partner that their emotional experience is wrong.  The second is, “You don’t matter.”  The quintessential aspect of attachment is the longing to know that there is someone to whom we matter and to whom we can turn for comfort and support.  When one partner brings a complaint and the other partner defends, the message is that your concern does not matter to me, and by extension that you don’t matter to me.  If you are one who defends, this message may be the furthest thing from your mind, but it is a message your partner receives.  As mentioned earlier, defensiveness turns the discussion from being about your partner’s concern to being about you.  The third is “Your sins in this relationship are worse than mine.”  Defensiveness can take a number of forms.  One of these is roughly, “Let me tell you how you are worse than I am.”  If you have complaints of your own, you should be able to discuss them.  However, they should not be cashed in like a book of stamps[2] in response to your partner’s complaint.  Deal with the present issue of your partner’s complaint first.  Then if there is one of your own to discuss, you can bring it up.  The two should not be related even if they are similar. 

If you avoid defensiveness, you are not giving up your voice in the relationship, nor are you conceding that your partner’s view of the situation is correct.  If you avoid defensiveness and seek to understand your partner, you are actually creating more room to claim your voice in the relationship. 

Still stuck?  Find a couples therapist.  Helping couples get out of negative cycles of interaction is what we do. 

[1] For more information on these, see the post on The Four Horsemen.

[2] This may be too outdated a metaphor.  It used to be that stores would give customers “Blue Chip Stamps” with their purchases.  You could collect the stamps and cash them in for merchandise.  Sometimes in relationship we can have a tendency to “stamp collect.”  That is, we keep a mental collection of our partner’s wrongs against us and when we have enough, cash them all in at once.