This is Part 1 of a two-part series on how to notice and address defensiveness in yourself, to both have better mental health individually and much more peace and productivity in your personal and professional relationships.
One of the privileges of my work is hearing from readers or event attendees who get an “a-ha” moment from something I write or say—and then take simple steps to improve their relationships.
One woman told me that in reading The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages she had been challenged to be as kind to her spouse in private as she was in public (which, according to my research, 75% of highly happy couples are). She thanked me for helping her marriage in such a practical way. I thought that was the extent of our interaction until she moved a half a step closer.
“Things weren’t always good between us,” she said, recounting a specific scene from early in her marriage in which she folded her arms, got defensive about her poor behavior, and deflected blame to her husband. She’d done this many times. They volleyed blame back and forth for a few minutes until he blurted, “It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re on the same side.”
The words marked a turning point in their relationship—one that she has never forgotten. The moment was so significant, she even remembers what she was wearing.
“I didn’t realize I was so defensive all the time,” she confessed.
Do you maybe need that same realization? That same turning point? As you’ll see in a moment, if you suspect you might regularly slip into defensive tendencies, it is something to take very, very seriously for the sake of your relationships. Seven simple steps can set you on a path to a less-defensive you—and improve your marriage and other relationships at the same time. In part 1 we will tackle the first three, then finish the rest in part 2.
Action Step #1: Realize the very real danger of defensiveness
Defensiveness. It’s an ugly D-word. And according to a lot of research, it’s actually a key predictor that your relationship is heading for trouble—in part because it is simply the visible sign of an unhealthy emotional response to feeling ashamed, unloved, attacked, and/or insecure. Defensiveness is one of relationship researcher John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” which, along with criticism, contempt, and stonewalling are among the criteria he uses to predict divorce with over 90% accuracy.
Divorce is an ugly D-word, too. And the concept doesn’t just apply to marriages. How many people can remember a friendship that got acrimonious and fell apart, or a job situation that got increasingly unpleasant until you had to leave? All too often, an underlying defensive attitude was running under the surface there, too. It is a toxic emotion.
It is also a human emotion. Every one of us has a tendency to “defend” ourselves when we feel blamed—by others or ourselves. But it can become a vicious cycle. Our defensiveness can be seen as an attack by the other person, which leads them to go on offense, which leads us to feel more need for self-protection … and so on. In the process, we build a habit. Our defensiveness becomes a state of mind, in which we subconsciously start looking for signs of criticism or signs that this person just doesn’t care about us. And of course, what we look for is what we will see—even if we would have never assumed the worst from that person’s words or actions if we had been in a more generous state of mind.
We need to interrupt the cycle.
Action Step #2: Take a few breaths (literally)
As you’ll see below, there are several key factors that will interrupt the cycle, such as forcing ourselves to actually listen. But before we can do any of them, we have to reset our brains to sort of pop them out of the defensiveness pattern.
None of us likes to be called out for our “stuff” (or to feel like we are), and when that happens our sympathetic nervous system may tense for a fight-or-flight response—which over time, becomes a habit. So the next time our spouse, friend, or colleague says something that pricks our defensive Spidey senses (“You totally threw me under the bus at that meeting!”), that’s a good moment to take things low and slow and dial down the volume.
One practical way to do that is to be very purposeful about breathing low and slow for a few moments. Seriously. That is not some weird mind-over-matter thing. Much research has found that deep, slow breathing helps reset the fight-or-flight response of our brain and sympathetic nervous system. Cool, right? It allows us to listen and think through how we want to respond before we actually do.
This short video has a good explanation of why breathing helps, and this short video explains a “box breathing” technique used for years among first responders and soldiers to allow focus and calmness in stressful situations.
Action Step #3: Purposefully listen to what your spouse is saying.
Once you have taken a few breaths and have “reset” your brain, here are three quick keys to listening:
- Focus on what they are saying—what is their actual concern?
- Focus on what they are feeling about the problem (essential in any situation, but especially for husbands to do in marriage)
- Do both of those without the self-protective measure of planning your response.
Note that an all-in state of listening without marshalling your own thoughts may feel radically unsafe in the moment. If you’re like me, you may be subconsciously thinking, “But I have to remember what my return arguments were going to be!” But if this is a person you do generally trust (as opposed to an abusive spouse or boss), it is the only way to truly listen.
If you do those three things, it ensures that you’re going to actually hear and hopefully understand their concerns. This is essential for the next four action steps, which we will cover next time.
And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at email@example.com.
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More from Shaunti’s Blog:
- Solutions for Sarcasm? Yeah, Right. (Nix the Negativity Series, Part 3)
- From Grumbling to Grateful! (Nix the Negativity Series, Part 2)
- Always Suspicious of Your Spouse (or Others)? Here’s What To Do! (Nix the Negativity, Part 1)
- 7 Date Night Do’s and Don’ts (Part 2)
- 7 Date Night Do’s and Don’ts (Part 1)
- Broken Trust in a Relationship? Here’s What To Do