In my work with couples, I often lean on the work of Dr. John Gottman, a clinician and researcher with 40 years of experience studying what makes marriages successful…and what makes them fall apart. Gottman and colleagues cite the practices of curiosity, mutual affection, and turning toward our partners’ bids for connection as relationship strengtheners. Across research, Gottman has identified what he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse,” the behaviors that create the most marital strain1. In this, Part Three of a 4-part series, we’ll be talking about Horseman 3: Defensiveness
We cannot feel ooey-gooey toward and satisfied with our partners all the time. Healthy complaining and grievance-airing (and successive collaboration and/or repair) is a normal part of marriage and partnership. When there’s excess tension or stress in a relationship, a family-of-origin or former relationship history of unhealthy conflict, or if partners air grievances in a critical or contemptuous way, however, it’s common for the recipient of the complaint or grievance to feel attacked or accused. When we feel threatened in this way, it’s easy to jump to martyrdom, victimhood, or excuse-making; this is defensiveness.
Defensiveness in conversation can look like:
Mary: Hey, you said you’d do the dishes after poker night last night and they’re still in the sink. Why didn’t you do them?
Maxine: I TOLD you how tired I was when I got home from work, and you know that poker night goes late sometimes. I’ve been stressed as hell lately and I already do pretty much all the chores around here anyway.
Joe: It hurt my feelings when you teased me about my haircut in front of your friends.
Devon: It was just a joke! It hurts MY feelings when you act like you’re better than me when we go out with people.
Sam: Did you get a chance to make Moira’s doctor’s appointment?
Lucy: Why are these things always MY responsibility? I’ve been busy getting the house ready for your parents and I don’t understand why the kids’ appointments always fall on me!
Defensiveness is never productive during conflict because it both reverse-blames our partners and also communicates that we’re not listening to what they’re saying. Defensiveness puts others on the defensive; when we’re both feeling attacked, we get dysregulated, and when we get dysregulated, all bets are off for connected, collaborative conflict resolution. The next time you find yourself feeling ready to defend during a conversation, first, notice your physiology. Relax any tense muscles, breathe into your belly, unclench your jaw. Next, commit to yourself not to speak until you can a.) do so without turning the grievance around on your partner (“but YOU always…”) and b.) without saying “but” or making excuses. Then, own your behavior or, at the very least, find a piece of the complaint for which you can take responsibility. You partner will be far more likely to hear “I’ve just been so tired lately” if you begin with “you’re right. I said I’d do that and I didn’t—let me take care of it right now.” Remember: good communication begins with really listening to one another and letting our people know that we hear what they’re saying. Defensiveness is a fast-track to escalation and devolution, even if we feel like our partners are being overly critical or unreasonable. It’s easier (and feels better in the moment) to jump to excuse-making or counter-attack when we feel threatened or cornered, but here’s the thing: we are always responsible for our own behavior, no matter what our partners say or do. If we take a beat to settle, pause, and own our parts, we’re opening the door to healthier, more effective communication and faster, more connected repair.
1. The Four Horsemen. The Gottman Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.gottman.com/blog/category/column/the-four-horsemen/