Defensiveness is “one of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” as the The Gottman Institute coined it.
John Gottman has been touted as the man that can predict whether couples will divorce with a 90% accuracy rate, just by observing them as they are resolving conflict. In doing his research, he noticed that there are four behaviors that when shown consistently over time, are indicators that the couple may be rearing towards divorce. These Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness.
Defensiveness is a behavior that I notice my clients struggle with a lot. For those individuals who have an avoidant attachment style, I notice it can be their go-to of the four, which can really get them into trouble with their partners.
Here is the piece of advice that I’ve seen be most helpful for these partners to navigate conflict in a more productive and loving way in their relationships:
Apply empathy first. And here is what I mean by that…
One of the most powerful tools for listening to your partner when they come to you with an issue or an ask, is to acknowledge their thoughts and emotions and validate them.
So if your partner comes to you with a want, need, boundary, critique or complaint, the golden rule for them to feel heard, seen and understood by you, is to practice empathy and acknowledge and validate their thoughts, feelings and experience of the situation.
Empathy shows your partner you can see their side. And that you see how they’d feel that way given their experience. What it does not mean, is that you have to agree with it. It just means that you could see how they could think or feel that way given their point of view.
It also doesn’t mean that you can’t share your side of the issue, or clarify your intent or thought process. But the order of when you share this matters.
If you immediately launch into expressing what was coming up for you in your experience of the issue, or what you want or need, it comes off as defensive. It dismisses their feelings and experience. And doesn’t make them feel seen. And this defensive behavior and repeated dismissal of another person’s experience has been shown to erode the connection, trust, intimacy and friendship in a relationship.
If, instead, you first exercise empathy and make them feel validated for the way they feel, you can then have your opportunity to share your side and get your feelings and experience validated as well when they switch into the role of the listener (it is not one or the other).
But the order is what matters. If they initiated the conversation, your role is of the listener first and to offer support on what you heard. It is not appropriate to bring in another topic or something that they did that you want acknowledgment for too. You wait your turn, otherwise it comes off as minimizing or deflecting (in other words, defensiveness).
For example, let’s say your partner asked you to cut the grass after work and you agreed to it in the morning. Dinner time comes around and you walk in after spending time talking to the neighbor after work instead of cutting the grass because your neighbor just got let go from their job and needed support.
Here are some examples of how a defensive and empathetic response might look like:
Complaint: I thought we had agreed to you cutting the grass after work. I am having people over for lunch tomorrow and I’m upset that the yard won’t look nice.
Defensive response: Larry just told me he got let go and he needed to talk to me! What do you want me to do? It isn’t my fault!
Empathetic response: Sweetie, I’m so sorry. I know I agreed to it this morning. And I also know how much you’ve been looking forward to this lunch and that you want everything to be perfect. I totally get why you’re upset. I promise I will cut the grass after dinner tonight. I didn’t forget. Larry just told me he got let go today and I felt like I needed to be there to support him.
If you want help navigating your partnership in a more harmonious way and communicating with your partner in a way that it lands, this is what I help my clients with.
I will give you all the communication tools (and common pitfalls that I see my clients experience) so that you and your partner can feel both heard, seen, understood and celebrated in your relationship.
We both know love is not the issue. You both clearly love each other. So let’s improve your communication style so that you can lean into that love more frequently and thrive in your partnership.
Sign up for a consult call and let’s start coaching 1-on-1 today!