Putting Away Defensiveness and Building a Relationship

Sometimes it is really amazing how hard we work to keep ourselves from being better.  It may not be something we are consciously doing.  In fact, we are most likely very unaware when we are doing it.  Nonetheless, it is something many of us definitely do.  How do we do that?  Through defensiveness.  Defensiveness is one of the single greatest barriers to growth for us personally and for our relationships.  So much so that relationship guru, John Gottman, actually calls defensiveness one of the “four horsemen of the apocolypse.”  If defensiveness is regularly present within ourselves and our relationships, we can guarantee that complete destruction is not far behind.

What is it about defensiveness that hurts our progress so much?  Why don’t we look at a quick example?  Let’s just say that I have a tendency to lecture my wife.  When someting comes up that bothers me in some way I go on an on about all the ways it affects me, why it’s wrong, and what she can do differently.  If this were the case, it would likely send the message to her that I see her as a child that has to be educated on the right way of doing things.  She would probably see me as self-righteous, critical and one heck of an annoyance.  She may also think that I see her as unintelligent and incapable of figuring things out for herself.  All of these things would most definitely have the effect of pushing her away from me and making her feel like less than she is to me. 

Now let’s say that my wife tells me that I lecture her too much and expresses how she feels when I do that.  If I were in defensive mode, I might say something like, “I wouldn’t have to lecture if you would listen to me.”  Or maybe even “I am not lecturing!  I’m just trying to give you solutions!”  Either way, you can see that the last thing on my mind is actually listening to the message she is sending me.  So what is the end result?  She goes away feeling even worse than she did when she first approached me, and I go away feeling criticised, with no intention of doing anything differently.  I make it her problem in my mind, and remove any responsibility I might have to do things differently.  In short, I have set myself up for diving into a pattern of frustration, victimisation and ever-growing distance from my wife.

Most people who have been married, or who have been in any kind of relationship for that matter, can relate to this example in some way.  It is incredibly common.  It is not difficult to see how defensiveness can hurt a relationship.  The thing that is much more difficult to understand is why we do it when it hurts us so much.   Why do we work so hard doing something that only causes distance between us and our companions? 

In order to understand this, we have to first understand a little bit about the most basic of human needs: love and acceptance.  All people have an innate need to be loved and accepted by others.  It is at the very foundation of all other human needs.  It is so important to us that nearly all we do in any social situation is in someway aimed at fulfilling this need.  We may be careful with the way we talk, dress, laugh, or any number of other things because we do not want to be rejected by others.  Even our selfless desires to serve and help others may in some way be traced back to our desires to be accepted by God.  Somewhere in all our actions that motivation almost always exists. 

Because being loved and accepted is such a deep-rooted need, we also do everything we can to protect that need.  When we are defensive we have a strong tendency to view complaints as attacks on our character.  More importantly, we see them as messages that we are in some way unlovable and/or unacceptable.  This causes a pain that strikes us at our very center.  Having no desire to experience this pain, we then fight back to defend ourselves against the notion that we are unacceptable.  We do all we can to convince ourselves that we are actually ok.  We take blame off ourselves and put it on the other.  We justify our actions, hoping that if we can give a good enough “explanation” the other will see that our behavior makes sense.  We attack back, criticising the other in hopes that they will realize they are the ones who are flawed, not you.  We make all these tremendous efforts simply to protect ourselves from the pain of feeling unloved and unaccepted. 

So, let’s now go back to the question again.  Why are we defensive even though it causes great damage to ourselves and our relationships?…  We are defensive because the pain of feeling unloved and unaccepted attacks with greater speed and greater depth, and is far more vivid than is the damage done by defensiveness.  It is a simple issue of whether we would react more quickly to placing our hands on a hot stove as opposed to a warm stove.  We will always naturally react to the greater pain first. 

The next question is, if we always react to the greater pain first, how do we ever stop the damage done by defensiveness?  I like to think of the solution like this:  if we put up our shields each time we see a sword flying at us, we must change the sword into a rose.  When you first read this statement you may get the impression that I am recommending that we change the other person in some way.  Certainly, there is much to be said for letting your companion know that it’s easier for you to receive their comments when they are delivered calmly and politely.  However, your main focus cannot be in changing your spouse if you hope to overcome defensiveness.  When I say we need to change the sword into a rose, I am actually referring to how you perceive your partner’s comments. 

As I mentioned before, we become defensive when we view comments as attacks.  Rather than viewing them as attacks allow me to present an alternative interpretation.  There are two parts to this new interpretation.  First, any form of criticism we receive is an opportunity to learn how to be better.  We are able to become aware of potentially destructive behaviors or habits we might have that we may not have been aware of.  I once heard a statement by a very wise individual.  He said, “Whenever I receive a criticsm, I always look for the truth in what was said.”  He then explained that he does this so that he can learn how to bring himself one step further in his progression.  When we resist feedback, we are actually working to stay stagnant.  As I have discussed in previous posts, there are few things that cause a person greater misery than stagnation in the face of high growth potential.  By receiving what it is our partner’s are trying to convey to us, we are also allowing ourselves to move toward that potential, and that growth feels great!

The second part of this new interpretation of feedback has to do with the true message our companion’s are trying to convey to us.  Understanding that the core needs of everyone are love and acceptance, with the underlying need of closeness within a relationship, we can now also understand the purpose behind nearly all complaints.  We receive complaints when our actions, or non-actions have somehow sent the message to our companion that we do not love them, accept them, value them, and/or want to be close to them.  This is the message that they ultimately want us to understand, but the key to this message is this: these things only bother them because they want to be loved by us, they want to be accepted and valued by us, and most importantly, they want to be close to us.  They are telling us that they want to be close to us, but our behavior is making it difficult for them to feel that.  Did you ever consider that when your spouse is complaining to you that what they actually want is to be closer to you?  That thought can really boggle the mind, especially if we have always viewed complaints as intentional attempts to inflict harm on us, with no desires to be closer.  When you really think about it, can you think of a single complaint you have ever made to your spouse that did not stem back somehow to a desire to feel loved, accepted, valued, or closer to your spouse?  It can be a powerful realization to understand that complaints are nothing more than invitations to be closer. 

When we change how we view complaints we open ourselves up to a world of opportunity for growth and greater happiness in our marriage.  We no longer believe we have to protect ourselves from harm because we no longer see complaints as harmful, but as instructions for love.  We can then put away defensiveness because we realize that the only things we are actually defending ourselves against are growth, peace, confidence, selflessness, humility, happiness, and increased love. 

The rose is before us, we only need receive it.red_rose_1.jpg Red Rose image by Chopman001


Carnival of Family Life: The Paper Toy Edition


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Your article is great, and written for people who are able to separate themselves from their feelings and intellectualize their process! 🙂 Many people are not capable of doing that.

    My husband is seldom defensive. It’s very nice. 🙂

    • Not allowing ourselves to be ruled by our emotions is certainly something that takes practice. Many people fall into the trap of believing that they are simply victims to their emotions. This not only takes all responsibility away from them, it takes away their agency. In truth, those who struggle with this have such a habit of giving into their emotions that they literally do feel out of control. No matter how long this particular habit has been in place, it is one that can be broken. In order to do so, we don’t necessarily have to intellectualize all of our emotions. Rather, we can make a regular practice of thinking about our spouses in a different way so that the emotions are less likely to ever happen. It is something that takes time and focus to master, but it is also something we all have the God-given ability to do.

      Our thoughts and perceptions always preceed our emotions. By controlling our thoughts, in this case how we interperet criticism, we are also controlling our emotions. The goal in this is not to keep from feeling emotions, but to feel emotions that will promote individual happiness and relational success. I may need to go into more detail in a future post on how exactly the process of managing thoughts and emotions works. It is a very powerful process that can bring about amazing changes for individuals when they master it, and it is something we all can do.

      It’s wonderful that you have such a strong example in your husband of how this is done. He must be a very humble and loving man. 🙂

      Thank you once again for your great comments!


  2. marriage and/or relationships take time and work, this is a great article reflecting on great suggestions, this is something we all need to read and be aware of, even if it is just for information for what otheres are and can do….here is to happy productive relationships of all kinds!!!


  3. my girlfriend suffers from defensiveness. its ruining my relationship with her. i know i am not perfect either and there is alway room from growth. i love her very much but if she cant learn how to understand i am not attacking her…. we are not going to be able to survive. when you love someone you will go to the ends of the eart for them. do anything for them…

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