Today’s post is about Defensiveness, one of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ as relationship specialist John Gottman eloquently describes as “The four behaviours that will ultimately trample in and stomp out any existing relationship”; Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
I haven’t yet written a blog on these behaviours and it is well overdue, considering the Gottman Method of Couple Counselling is the basis of my practice. In my experiences in working with relationships, I personally feel that defensiveness manifests as the most dominant of the four.
What does it look like if your speaking partner is defensive? You will hear a lot of ‘Yes, but….’ as you listen to the trail of their voice go on about all the reasons they ‘did what they did’ and why it was the right thing to do or way to act. How they are adamantly right, and you are so, so wrong. They love to blame you and take little-to-no responsibility. They need to win. There is no ‘we’ in the relationship, it is all ‘I’. You rarely here a ‘sorry’ from this person. It is hard for them to leave the room until a victory goal is scored.
It is very sad.
I say it is sad because a) these individuals are extremely insecure in their attachment style; b) their surface emotion is quite often displayed as anger but underneath there is a great fear that they are fighting internally. The only way of getting to the fear is by determining how it came about in the first place. Determining the person’s attachment style becomes a focus in therapy.
“It takes two individuals to make a couple; so, doesn’t it make sense for both of you to do individual internal work to repair the relationship?”
This is the core of the type of work I do with individuals. When couples come to me in distress, it is not uncommon that I work with the individual at some point. It takes two individuals to make a couple; so, doesn’t it make sense for both of you to do individual internal work to repair the relationship? Sometimes a bit of both is necessary, while other times one is suffering more than the other. A lot of good things can come from this individual work; all you need is the willingness and humbleness to change.
If you are familiar with the work of Julie and John Gottman (they have published many books on relationships) you may have heard that John Gottman is known to be able to determine with 90% certainty whether or not couples will make it after spending the first 10 minutes with them in the room. After doing this type of work for the years that I have, I can see this is very predictable. I can see it in facial expressions, how often they turn or look at each other, tonality and pitch, turn taking in conversation. My Master’s in Communication Sciences and Disorders comes in very handy when noting communication styles. It is easy for me to note if they still have fondness and affection for one another, whether humour is still part of their interaction and whether or not there are still positives noted in the other person, or simply the negatives.
So, back to defensiveness. The antidote to defensiveness is to become accountable. Take responsibility, rather than blame your partner. Yield to Win rather than having the Need to Win. I sometimes coach my ‘defensive client-type’ to ‘walk away and allow your partner to be wrong’. This mindset actually helps them tremendously! Otherwise, the defensive partner is known to ‘not give up until they have the last word’ or follow their partner around the house, espousing WHY they are RIGHT and WHY you are WRONG. This becomes very distressing and harmful and can lead to a lot of built-up resentment on the part of the non-defensive partner.
I used a paraprosdokian as the title of this blog…which I love. Whatever it takes for you to walk away from the discussion, without displaying defensiveness, is a winning strategy. The more you practice this act, the easier it gets. The skill is in gaining space between the stimulus and the response, the trigger and the behaviour that ensues. Every habit of thought is followed by a habit of action. The goal is to break the cycle. I approach couple work with a functional medicine lens just as I approach physical symptoms. We need to go to the root of the problem. With the willingness to change and grow as a whole person, we mutually discover how this habit became a part of the subconscious thought pattern or programming.
As a therapist, I feel it is a true privilege to accompany you through this self-discovery. With trust, faith and perseverance, you will gain immense insight to your thoughts. Once you do that, you can then regulate your thoughts; and once you see you have a choice in the thoughts that enter your head, then you have the potential to reach true happiness and fulfillment.