Defensiveness is Self-defeating

Defensiveness is a bigger problem than you might think, and I find it hard to convince anyone that they are being defensive. Confronting it gets a defensive response. It’s the same with denial. I know how hard it can be to inhibit the impulse to defend yourself when accused. I doubt that you’ve ever heard anyone say, “Of course, I’m being defensive, and for sure, I’m in complete denial…I can’t deny it.”

So, what is its opposite? I once heard marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, suggest conveying this message to one’s partner as an antidote for defensiveness: “There is something important to you that I’m not getting; tell me more so I can understand.” That’s hard to do when someone you love has a gun pointed at your head. Don’t tell my wife I said that; I try to make it look easy.  

The inclination to be defensive may result from (1) being impulsive and (2) being inclined to defend your best intentions. If you have ADHD and are impulsive, you might be blind to the effects of your impulsive behavor…and the effect of your defensiveness. The focus of your attention may well be trapped in your own bubble. You cannot see outside of the bubble when locked inside of it. You may be thinking only about how offended and hurt you are. That’s a big problem because getting stuck there precludes having a flexible mind, one that can observe self and other at the same time. Being certain of your innocence, and your partner’s bad intentions, are not features of a flexible mind. Suspending certainty is more useful.

You may think that allowing influence gives some self-serving advantage to your partner in an argument. But failing to allow influence is one of the most common mistakes that marriage partners make. Think for a moment about whether there is a true need to be right and to prove your partner wrong. Proving your partner wrong creates loss for both because the partnership loses when either partner loses. Asking your partner to tell you more, so you can understand what she is feeling and thinking, is not the same as saying, “You win; I’m wrong,” which is not much better than saying, “I’m right, and you’re wrong.”

What is better than winning an argument, and proving your partner wrong, is arriving at this destination: “I now have a better understanding of what you were trying to tell me.” When you give that gift to your partnership, your partner is likely to be flexible in response, and motivated to understand you. Mutual understanding is much better for a partnership, and feels more like love, than mutual blaming.

Defensiveness is like insulation. It protects us from the elements, from the discomfort of embarrassment or guilt, or from having our weaknesses or limitations exposed. But humility can be useful in a marriage partnership. Embarrassment and shame are at the top of my list of uncomfortable feelings, but I have benefited more from tolerating the discomfort of those emotions than from fighting to avoid or escape them. 

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