Don’t get defensive is something we say all the time. Defensiveness is our natural and reflexive position when confronted with the idea that we’ve done something wrong or disappointed someone, particularly those we care about. Becoming defensive is easy, and avoiding it takes real effort.
Before I launch into how to avoid it however, let’s talk a little bit about what defensiveness looks like. I think we sometimes view it in it’s most aggressive incarnation, which is when someone brings up a problem and we counter by blaming them for the things they’re doing wrong: I’m not happy about our sex life, answered with, well, you never help around the house. This is certainly one form of defensiveness, but it is often expressed in a way that is subtler and seemingly more reasonable. For instance, when someone brings up a problem, and we immediately respond by explaining our actions, that is also defensiveness: you don’t show up when I need you to answered with, I couldn’t come that day because I had a meeting. Sure, that response sounds and probably is entirely sensible, but it hasn’t addressed the person’s real concern, which is feeling that their partner isn’t there for them. An immediate explanation, without acknowledging the other person’s experience essentially says, you shouldn’t feel this way, and here’s why. This type of response comes from a place of defending ourselves instead of recognizing the other person’s needs.
While I’m sure there are other ways to be defensive, those are some of the most common that I see. So, let’s talk about how we can avoid it. The first step is to stop and consider how the other person may be right. For example, if your partner comes to you with an issue, start by honestly asking yourself, what is my responsibility in this? The answer here is almost never none. If you believe your partner is basically a smart and reasonable person, and they’re saying you had a hand in a problem, there’s about a 99% chance you had at least a finger in it. What’s also great about taking a moment to reflect on your role in the issue is that it gets you to be quiet, which begins the process of helping the person feel that you are listening and taking them seriously.
The next step is to get curious about what’s going on. Ask questions to get a better sense of what this situation feels like to them. These don’t have to be deep, meaningful questions, they can be simple—tell me more about that, or can you explain it to me? Once your partner brings up a problem, it now belongs to the both of you—you’re in it together. And if you’re going to fix it, you’re going to need more information and to allow that person the opportunity to express how they experience the problem. Being heard and acknowledged is most often what we’re looking for when we bring up a problem to our spouse, and you can accomplish this by actually listening, and trying to understand their perspective.
The next step is to take ownership for your part. After you’ve considered your behaviors, and gotten more info from your partner, own your role directly and sincerely apologize. Tap into the part of yourself that hurts because they hurt, and apologize from that place. The key here is to avoid jumping to the apology—you have to first listen, and then connect with some part of yourself that truly feels regretful, either because you can recognize that you messed up, or because you’re simply sorry that your actions have hurt them. Yelling I’m sorry! is not an apology—it is, in fact, more defensiveness.
I don’t know that there’s anyone on this planet who does not give in to defensiveness at times. And when you realize that you’ve knee-jerked your way into that response, it’s always okay to apologize and admit that your statements were coming from a defensive place. You can let your partner know that your initial reaction overtook you, and you’d like to try again.
On the other side, if your partner has sincerely admitted their wrong, shut up. Admitting fault in a is a vulnerable step to take, and should be respected. Don’t keep dog piling on about all the ways they screwed this up. Let them know that you appreciate their willingness to accept responsibility, and talk about what each of you can do differently. This also encourages your partner to be up front with you in the future, because they don’t have to worry that you’re going to lord their mistake over them.
Finally, while I think its almost always helpful to take responsibility for our behaviors, in a long-term partnership, this has to go both ways. It doesn’t work for one you to continue to be vulnerable by admitting your errors, and the other not to do this. If only of you is always saying they’re sorry, it’s a problem.
We are all given to defensiveness, but we don’t have to stay that way. While it isn’t necessarily easy at first, the more you practice responding in a new way, the more reflexive it gets. Defense may be our natural position, but we don’t have to stay there.