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Help: My spouse gets really defensive…What do I do?

April 5, 2009 · Print This Article

angry-couple Defensiveness is one of the four toxins in communication, however; it is a common toxin found in almost all marriages. Happily married couples have less of the toxin than do couples who eventually divorce. The challenge is reducing your spouses defensiveness.

Watch defensive interactions:[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teMlv3ripSM[/youtube]

Typically, a defensive response (words or action) suggests “wait a minute, slow down; I’m not with you on this; I don’t agree.” Defensive responses are common and normal in an argument or disagreement, in fact, it is associated with a healthy sense of self. Imagine a world where everyone agreed with everyone all the time. I purpose that would be boring as all can be.

Defensiveness is like traffic signals in a discussion: stop, proceed with caution, or go forward with what you are doing. Typically, defensiveness means proceed with caution. Responding to defensiveness in a manner that is de-escalating and soothing makes the difference. If defensiveness is increasing in the discussion, it is likely that it is being fueled (not all the time) but most of the time. There are some cases where a person is simply defensive all the time as a personality trait. This is rare. The majority of the time in marriages, when a couple is “chronically” in defend-attack mode, it is a result of ongoing toxic communication patterns and neither is slamming on the breaks to supply the much needed antidote. Defensiveness can also be delivered in a sweet sounding package, like a warm, nice tone of voice.  Any response that is essentially a “Yes, but” is a defensive response no matter how it is delivered.

How to respond to defensiveness?  Roll with it.

That’s right. Roll with it. Sound to simple? It is extremely difficult. There are two options; five second delay or agree with what is agreeable (Gottman, 2005).

If you are a man reading this, research has shown that if you wait five seconds before responding, you will likely be less defensive.  Only FIVE seconds!!

Look at your watch and time five seconds. It sounds like a short period of time, but in what I call “relationship time” it seems like eternity.

Try it as an experiment next time the tension is rising.

Either men or woman can do the second experiment. Find something in the points that your partner is making with which you agree or  make sense and then stop (temporarily).

For example:  “I really hear your points on this one. There are a couple I really agree with such as…” OR “I never thought of it from that angle. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.”

Then STOP –  Do not “BUT” and then begin stating your points.

Instead, elicit more information from your partner. “Do you have any other thoughts on this issue?”

Hear your partners points all the way through. Be patient. Avoid sounding sarcastic with the above. Your turn comes after you thoroughly understand your partner. After your partners turn, open with, “OK. I am wondering if you can hear my points on this issue and tell me what you agree with. We can argue the points of contention later. Let’s just find some common ground for starters – OK?”

Right now, if there is a defensiveness you are feeling when you read this (IE: “sounds like psychobabble, no one talks that way, I could never do that, my spouse would laugh their head off, my partner would never believe me if I did that, I am not giving in like that to him/her, my partner would never respond to me”) it means that you are entrenched in your position in the argument with your partner- which likely means the issue is very, very important to you and you may believe that by experimenting with the “Roll with it” you are somehow conceding or giving up. I assure you, that is not the case. I implore you to maintain your expectations and to argue for what you want. I am suggesting that how you are arguing is not working for you or your partner. Research shows that when giving up one’s expectations in marriage, the marriage begins a slow death.

Save your marriage.

Keep the Faith

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Comments

2 Responses to “Help: My spouse gets really defensive…What do I do?”

  1. Barb Barghahn on April 6th, 2009 4:47 pm

    “That’s right. Roll with it. Sound too simple? It is extremely difficult. There are two options; five second delay or agree with what is agreeable (Gottman, 2005).”
    Rolling with it makes good sense and doesn’t sound so difficult
    IF a person can STOP their own talking to make use of one of
    the two options. That must be the “extremely difficult” part! Or the
    the difficult part may be setting your opinion aside long enough
    to implement one of the options. Or both. This is where ONE
    PERSON can make a difference in the direction of their marriage,
    without participation from a spouse, and feel empowered to do
    “something” positive.

    “I implore you to maintain your expectations and to argue for what you want. I am suggesting that how you are arguing is not working for you or your partner. Research shows that when giving up one’s expectations in marriage, the marriage begins a slow death.”
    I never thought of this part quite like this…”begins a slow death.”
    It sounds like boundary-setting is a big part of “maintain
    your expectations” as well as not losing your individual identity
    in your marriage. A “slow death” sounds like a painful thing.

    Thanks for sending these out…they make a person think.

  2. tstein on April 6th, 2009 5:42 pm

    Marriage is about giving and maintaining your sense of self. The great paradox of marriage – how to change it while accepting your partner 🙂
    Ted

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