0

D is for Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a wicked game. But it’s winnable.

Share this post:

The bride of my youth is delighted that I’m writing about defensiveness. She’s been chuckling under her breath at me all week. “How’s your article coming?” she asks. “I’m not exactly sure what to write,” I say. “Just write about yourself,” she teases. You see, I get defensiveness. Which is to say, I get defensive. Often.

Defensiveness, defined as any attempt to defend oneself from perceived attack, is the third of Dr. Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Over the years, I’ve developed a special kind of expertise in all of its manifestations: righteous indignation, counterattack and whining.

Yesterday, we went to Costco to stock up for the week. When we got home, the family scattered. The kids were folding some laundry. My wife was tying up some loose ends around the house. I put the groceries away. Soup in the pantry. Milk in the fridge. Chicken in the freezer.

The family later decided that we would have the chicken for dinner and, upon discovering that I hadn’t left it sitting on the counter, my wife said, “Ugh…you’re always in such a hurry to put stuff in the freezer!” (Which was a ridiculous but sort of charming thing to say.) But then I said, “Don’t you mean, ‘Thanks for shopping for, buying, carrying and putting away all the groceries?’” (Also ridiculous but less charming.)

In case you didn’t recognize it, that’s righteous indignation, which are the ten-dollar words for getting pissy in response to someone’s perceived attack. I’m generally pretty sure that my wife is not trying to attack me, yet even her good-natured ribbing triggers something defensive in me. My indignant responses are truly unconscious. Impulsive. The impulse is to immediately refute or rebut whatever is coming my way.

As fun as righteous indignation is, my favorite way to get defensive is through counterattack. Counterattack is one step beyond indignation. It’s an escalation of conflict through scorekeeping. Whenever I feel attacked, I start planning my response. Again, it’s an impulse, designed to protect me from the next attack. If I can somehow escalate more than my opponent (i.e. score more points), I win.

I cannot tell you the number of times that this has happened: An argument starts…maybe over spilled milk. I feel attacked. I counterattack. She says, “Don’t get defensive.” I get more defensive. I yell. She yells. I yell louder. She cries. I win. We both lose. In the end, we have no idea what we were arguing about and there is still milk on the floor.

A third manifestation of defensiveness is acting like the innocent victim, often by whining. This is the sneaky one. I believe that most people who default to victimization don’t realize they’re doing it. Or they’ve disguised their whining as sacrifice. My wife calls it “swinging the door” when I do it. I totally abandon my position in the hopes that she will feel terrible and give me what I want. “Okay fine. I promise I will never ever put the chicken in the freezer before I get permission from you.” She’s smarter than me though and usually just ignores me.

I really think the tendency towards victimization is more of an unconscious posture than a specific behavior, but even that posture is subject to triggers. I see it all the time with my clients. He may express a concern, legitimate or otherwise. Then she will explain, often through tears why his concern isn’t her fault. Just as often, she’ll end up explaining why everything is probably her fault. Once again, it’s an impulse, in this case to make sure that someone else can’t shame us more than we can shame ourselves.

Defensiveness is a wicked game. But it’s winnable. If betrayal is about the question of trust and contempt is about the question of respect, then defensiveness is about the question of responsibility. That’s the antidote: accepting responsibility for your role in the issue. Think about the word ‘responsibility’ for a second.

Response. Ability.

You have that. You are not subject to the whims of your impulses. You have the ability to respond with patience, grace and even strength. The key is for you to be aware of your triggers. And to understand the difference between a perceived attack and an actual one. Let that awareness inform your response ability.

Within the context of your relationship, it’s also a good idea to be aware of your partner’s triggers. This awareness goes a long way towards addressing conflict in a responsible manner. (Note to my bride: Telling me not to get defensive triggers my defensiveness.)

I’ve covered three of the 4 Horsemen this month. I won’t get to stonewalling until September, but by then I may decide to write about sex or sensitivity or something. (See what I did there?) But I encourage you to pay attention. I’ve found that couples can typically identify that two of the horsemen are more present than the others in their relationship. Simple math suggests that each partner has a special connection to a single horseman. Mine is defensiveness. What’s yours?

Share this post:

Zach Brittle is a Certified Gottman Therapist, best selling author of The Relationship Alphabet, and host of the highly-rated podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. He has a private practice in Seattle, WA and offers online coaching to couples across the country. He he has been happily married to his wife for 20 of 21 years. Together they have two daughters, a minivan, and most of the silverware they received at their wedding.

Recommended products

Original price was: $250.00.Current price is: $189.00.

The World’s First Proven Solution to Assess and Improve Relationships

The Gottman Relationship Adviser is a complete approach to relationship wellness. Measure your relationship health with the research-based Gottman Assessment, analyze five key areas of your partnership to identify your strengths and weaknesses, then start a tailored, step-by-step digital program proven to heal and strengthen your connection—all on your schedule and from anywhere.

The Adviser uses the legendary scientific Gottman Method to help you understand what’s really going on in your relationship—and gives you exactly what you need to improve it.

Original price was: $119.00.Current price is: $79.00.

Research-based Foundations for a Lifetime of Love.  The Gottman Relationship Coach is an inspiring and educational multimedia experience designed to enhance the well-being of relationships. Participants will be guided through research-based tools and communication skills that can transform relationships—all based on the popular Gottman Method. The first program, “How to Make Your Relationship Work”, is now available and includes:

  • The Gottman Method and How to Make Your Relationship Work
  • How do we predict the future of a relationship?
  • How to build a Sound Relationship House
  • What to do when the destructive Four Horsemen enter your relationship

“Buy Now” will take you to GOTTMAN CONNECT to purchase and view this product.

Original price was: $599.00.Current price is: $480.00.

Created by “the Einstein of Love” (Psychology Today), this two-day workshop is grounded on what actually works in relationships that are happy and stable. See for yourself why millions of couples worldwide have benefited from the Gottman Method.

Quote from participant in most recent Live Virtual Workshop:

The Art and Science of Love workshop- where do I begin? It was an absolute stellar workshop. We were looking forward to this for weeks, and it exceeded our expectations! It was well-structured, and well-organized, and provided a wealth of information with real-time demonstrations of how to work through specific scenarios. The outstanding support that was provided throughout the exercises with therapists on standby- WOW! Priceless!

Includes the Art & Science of Love box set.  Please allow time for shipping.  Please Note: This is a live online event. To attend, you will need a reliable internet connection. Our staff will reach out to you with your personal registration and access information.

$30.00

Improve your relationship in 30 days! Backed by over 50 years of research, the 30 Days to a Better Relationship challenge will help you reconnect with your partner and bring more positivity into your relationship. The tools and exercises, delivered once a day for 30 days by email, build on one another and take five minutes or less to complete.

 

Related posts

Stonewalling vs. The Silent Treatment

Stonewalling vs The Silent Treatment: Are They The Same?

Kari Rusnak

What’s the difference between stonewalling and the silent treatment? ...

Read More

Stonewalling

Help! Someone Told Me I’m Stonewalling

Laura Silverstein

Stonewalling is dramatically misunderstood. It is not the icy indifference that it might appear to be on the surface. ...

Read More

Brene Brown Atlas of the Heart

Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart: Defensiveness and Flooding

The Gottman Institute

From her latest book, Brené discusses these core Gottman Method concepts ...

Read More

photo of couple arguing

‘It’s Not My Fault!’: Why Defensiveness is Damaging

Cheryl Fraser

Don’t get defensive. Do this instead. ...

Read More

What Causes Contempt in Relationships

What Causes Contempt in Relationships

Jinashree Rajendrakumar

How to spot contempt and what to do when it shows up ...

Read More

Types of Criticism

Types of Criticism: Expressing Concern or Complaint without Harm

Kimberly Panganiban

Learn how to identify the first of the four horsemen ...

Read More

Subscribe to Gottman Love Notes

Sign up and start your relationship transformation. Subscribe and get the latest on relationships, therapy, and much more from the experts. Includes a free download and access to special pricing on Gottman products every month