Keys to Dissolving Defensiveness
You think you are asking a simple question and your partner snaps back at you, "Do you have to question everything I do?!" With an exasperated sigh, you answer, "I was just asking, don't get so defensive." Even though you're exasperated with how defensive your partner gets you find yourself reacting with defensiveness too. Neither of you want it be this way, but it just keeps happening.
When defensiveness shows up regularly it is usually a symptom that your relationship is depleted of a nutrient. This nutrient is being seen and heard with respect, acceptance, and celebration. When you trust that someone sees you and your good intentions, respects your unique way of engaging life (regardless of how different it is from theirs), and can celebrate who you are; you have nothing to defend. If these things are missing, you will notice the impulse to prove yourself or justify what and how you do things. From this idea of having to prove and justify, you begin to listen for any hint of criticism or attack. Defensiveness lives on a hair trigger.
There are many ways your relationship can get depleted of the vital nutrients of being seen and heard with respect, acceptance, and celebration. Let's look at three major ways.
Lack of Empathy & Listening: Tragically empathy and listening is often missing simply out of ignorance. You and your partner may have never learned how to just listen and how to offer empathy. Secondarily, one or both of you have underestimated the importance of listening and empathy. You don't know that it is the essential element that maintains connection over time.
Differences Become Criticisms: When the differences between you and your partner trigger discomfort for you, you can find yourself expressing disapproval of those differences through teasing, criticizing, dismissing, minimizing, or ignoring them. This leaves your partner thinking that only parts of him or her can be seen and welcome in the relationship.
Major Hurts & Betrayals: Seeing and celebrating the unique nuances of your partner gives him or her a sense of not only being seen deeply, but also being valued. Any major hurt or betrayal that can happen with an affair, addiction, chronic disengagement, keeping secrets, etc., damages trust around being seen and valued.
Regardless of how your relationship became depleted, you can start taking your emotional vitamins right away! Together you can prioritize listening time over other kinds of interactions. (For distinctions on listening with empathy versus other habits of listening see pdf's on my website "Essentials of Empathy" and "What's Not Empathy": span style="font-size: 14.6667px; font-family: Arial; color: rgb(17, 85, 204); text-decoration: underline; vertical-align: baseline; white-space: pre-wrap; background-color: transparent;">http://www.wiseheartpdx.org/resources.html). Here are some steps that will decrease defensiveness over time through building a sense that each of you is seen and heard with respect, acceptance, and celebration.
Using the "What's Not Empathy" list from my website, name for yourself what you habitually do when your partner shares something with you. Share this with your partner along with sharing and setting your intention to watch for this habit and replace it with listening with empathy and/or celebration.
Set up a specific time each week (or each day) in which you focus on listening to each other to the exclusion of all other types of interaction (e.g., problem solving, planning, evaluating, doing chores, etc.). Set an amount of time with which you know you can be successful. Two minutes of genuine listening is better than 20 minutes of reactivity with a few genuine listening moments sprinkled in.
Identify at least one difference between you and your partner with which you are uncomfortable and have expressed some form of disapproval. Engage the self-empathy process (you can find a pdf on this on same website page mentioned above) to cultivate compassion, groundedness, and to take responsible action around your discomfort.
Defensiveness doesn't have to be a part of your relationship. You can build trust that you are seen and accepted and relax into that confidence.
PracticeTake a moment now to reflect on the last time someone close to you got defensive. How might you bring more acceptance and listening to your interactions with this person? What situations or topics might you most need to remember this intention?
A Connected “No” is better than a Defended “Yes”