How Defensiveness Complicates Conflict

Our tenth anniversary kicked off a season of unprecedented strife, most of which was circumstantial. My husband and I were homeschooling our three young sons, navigating multiple part-time jobs and trying to manage my health crisis. Both of us lacked sleep, energy, and patience. Prior to this season, conflicts had not been an issue for us. We had them, we processed them, we forgave each other, and moved on. But a decade in, something shifted.

And it wasn’t for the better. In retrospect, we regressed to deeply embedded patterns from our families of origin. My northern European clan silently withdrew from one another and stoically pretended nothing was wrong. His Italian American household vocalized anger in operatic fashion. Tempers flared, voices cracked—and then someone made a joke and served dessert. That dynamic may have worked for them but when my husband got defensive when I was angry, he unequivocally trumped me. Unable to match his emotional output, I swallowed whatever had been bothering me but got progressively angrier as time went on.

In the midst of one blowup, I made a tearful plea. “When I’m angry, what if you just listen rather than respond defensively?” Based on his expression, this was indeed a new concept. As soon as he stopped matching my anger, the tenor, severity, and duration of our conflicts changed. This time for the better.

When he dialed down, he created a safe space for me to talk which de-escalated my anger and validated my concerns. From his side of the equation, quieting his defensive tendencies allowed him to see that I was not imagining problems but rather responding to something real. When he was culpable—which was certainly not all the time—and offered me an apology, it calmed the raging sea and allowed us to address the actual issues rather than endlessly reacting toward one another.

This was not an easy or quick shift for us. I had to coach myself to speak up, present my side without blaming or accusing, and choose to trust him. He had to weather my tempest and face a degree of powerlessness. Fourteen years later, we’re still learning how to do this well.

Defensiveness is a natural response when we feel threatened.
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It protects us from unpleasant feelings such as shame, the pain of being misunderstood, or, as was the case for my husband, the vulnerability of powerlessness. In and of itself, defensiveness is not necessarily the problem; it’s what we do with it that can become problematic.

If we immediately overpower the other or catalog all of the potential reasons why our husband or wife should get over it, what we’ve effectively done is invalidate their reality. For example, if my husband comes to me with the most recent credit card bill in hand, nervous about our bottom line and I edgily respond with, “I’m doing the best that I can. Maybe you should shop for a few weeks,” I’ve both deflected his legitimate concerns and alienated him. A better scenario—for both of us—would be for me to pause, offer up a quick prayer, and ask a clarifying question such as, “Should we recalibrate our budget in light of the recent, unexpected expenses?” This is not second nature for most of us.

Whether or not you’re in mid conflict, here’s a few suggestions to avoid responding defensively to your spouse:

  1. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt by believing the best about him or her. Because I grew up in a household where criticism outweighed praise, it’s all too easy for me to assume my husband is really more interested in finding fault with me than helping me to grow or trying to solve problems. This negative belief complicates matters. If I can assume he’s for me, even when he’s angry or upset, the situation will feel less threatening.
  2. Give up your need to be right. In the long-run, it will hurt your marriage. Choose be teachable instead.
  3. Give yourself a time out when you need it. Learn to say, “I’m feeling defensive as we’re talking. Could you give me a minute to see if I can figure out why?” Sometimes admitting what’s going on and asking for space will help you to understand what’s really at stake for you.
  4. Get help if you’re stuck. If you discover that you frequently respond defensively, regardless of what’s going on, consider exploring if there’s some unresolved anger or self-opposition free floating in your system. For instance, maybe your spouse is frequently finding fault with you and you’re tired of that. Or maybe you feel a pervasive inadequacy and any insinuation of failure confirms that assumption. If this rings true, it’s probably wise to consider asking another couple you trust for help (or even going for counseling). Though it might feel humiliating, all of us have seasons in our marriages when we need others to stand with us. There’s no shame in admitting that reality.
Defensiveness complicates conflicts and fails to further our conversations.
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We have to give up our right to be right and lay down our rhetorical swords to avoid this default response. As God empowers us to walk in a greater measure of humility and self-control, we will gradually be able to both listen and respond in love. Believe me—that’s a game changer.

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Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing about faith, encouraging others as they pursue Jesus, making photographs of beautiful things, and trying to love her family well. You can find more of her Words & Images on her website, or by following her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Dorothy's first book Making Marriage Beautiful is now available.

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