We develop defences to protect ourselves from all kinds of real and imagined pain that we have experienced over our lives. How impenetrable they are will be related to just how much we have had to defend ourselves in the past. Part of the attraction in the early stages of romantic love is that “falling in love” makes us feel like we don’t need our defences anymore. We feel we have finally found someone with whom we can be totally ourselves and our defences come down. As the relationship moves on, inevitably reality creeps in and our partners reveal themselves to be human after all and with being human comes the capacity to disappoint and cause pain. And the defences go back up again.
In a couple relationship that has been in trouble for a while the defences are well and truly in place. It is the only way each partner in the relationship knows how to protect themselves.
Defensiveness is one of John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. The others are criticism, contempt and stonewalling. These Four Horsemen, if present in a relationship are the strongest predictors of relationship demise.
Defensiveness look different for different people. There are those that dig themselves a trench, add rolls of barbed wire and only pop up now and again to throw a grenade; there are fortress walls with skilled arrowsmen carefully sending out arrows designed for maximum impact; there are those protected by landmines – quite confusing for partners as sometimes they dodge them and get through unscathed and other times get a limb blown off; then there are those that don’t fight but disappear like a turtle into its shell and cannot be coaxed out; or the opposite the terrier dog that hangs on and cannot be shaken off. The list goes on but you get the picture and perhaps recognise some of these in yourself.
You cannot connect when you are being defensive and as happiness in your relationship relies on connection then defensive behaviour has to go. But how? Think of defensiveness as an old tool that you made to protect yourself a long time ago you must be willing to throw that old tool out and replace it with some newer more useful tools.
Take Responsibility: Gottman says that the antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility. When your partner says something to you that you perceive as an attack instead of getting defensive and attacking back, think about how they may be right or your contribution to the issue.
“The dinner is cold” “well if you had been home from work on time it wouldn’t have been” “You know how hard it is for me to get away on time some nights I can’t believe your attitude I go to work to earn the money so you can stay home all day and spend it” “get your own dinner”.
OR “The dinner is cold” “yeh I know I always have in my head you’ll be home at 6 when I know it’s usually more like 6.30” “perhaps I could text you when I am leaving” “that would help and I’ll plan for 6.30 instead”.
Get curious: Another tool is to replace defensiveness with curiosity. Think about an iceberg – only the tip (about 10%) is above the water line and for real connection with our partner we want to get below the waterline and see the whole iceberg. Getting curious will encourage our partner to drop the waterline. And you may learn something about their inner world that you didn’t know before bringing you closer.
“I hate it when you wear those ripped shorts” “I can wear what I damn well want”
OR “I hate it when you wear those ripped shorts” “OK so you hate it when I wear these ripped shorts, tell me more”” I don’t know they just remind me of being poor” “uh hu” “yeh and when I was a kid and, you know how poor we were, if we had ripped clothes we couldn’t afford to buy new ones. One summer I had to wear ripped shorts because I didn’t have any others and I was so embarrassed.” “Thanks for telling me that, I guess seeing me in ripped shorts brings back that feeling of embarrassment”. “Yeh and we can afford new ones!!”
Create Safety: You are both less likely to need your defences if you feel your relationship is a place of nurturing and safety. When talking, take it in turns to speak without interruption and ensure that you have fully heard and understood your partner before it is your turn. In addition infuse your relationship with loving a caring behaviours and you will feel the safety increase.
And you don’t need to wait for your partner to raise the white flag before trying any of these strategies. You alone can make the decision to do it differently and you may be amazed at how quickly it catches on.