Communication — 21 January 2007
Personal defensiveness damages couples’ communication

A common conversational malfunction in couples involves blaming and defensiveness. One partner accuses, blames and criticizes and the other reacts with defensive dismissal of culpability. Both behaviors originate from the same source of needing to be valued.

“It is not my fault” is a stance of defensiveness by an individual who wants to exonerate him/herself from responsibility, and avoid being viewed as wrong, mistaken, inept or incompetent. The blaming person also acts from the same motivation of resisting personal imperfection by holding someone else responsible for a negative outcome.

Being defensive in relationship interactions has been deemed by researchers to be a strong negative determinant in marital satisfaction. Dr. John Gottman, researcher of the University Washington, calls defensiveness one of the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” dooming relationships. Dr. Lawrence Kurdek, professor of psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio also found that defensiveness is one of the destructive strategies of marital conflict resolution.

Tots do it: “He made me spill the milk”. Kids do it: “She started the fight”. Teenagers do it: “He got me to drink at the party”. Employees do it: “She did not give me the information to finish the report on time”. Adults do it: “You made me fail”. This universal human response is a sad attempt to maintain one’s worthiness in the eyes of those who matter.

All couples know that the blame/defensiveness exchange is painful. A dish broke. “You dropped it”, he said. “But you handed it to me while my hands were soapy”, she replied. As they were arguing their small daughter ran into the kitchen and cut her foot. Whoever was responsible for the breakage no longer mattered as they began accusing each other for their child’s injury.

Mistakes, accidents, poor judgment, unwise decisions, impulsive acts and oversights happen to all people. Many events involve some responsibility of both mates; some are personal errors, none of which should call for a reduction of value of either mate.

There are people who feel defensive even when blame is not assigned. This may have originated during childhood repeated blame or other inflicted insecurities. These individuals may benefit from personal therapy to increase their esteem.

Telling the partner that he/she is being defensive further escalates the anxiety, hurt and ill feelings of both partners about themselves and each other.

People are very concerned about being worthy of positive regard and love by others. The partner’s view is the most important feedback one seeks. When a partner offers kindness and a balancing perspective, defensiveness of the mate can be alleviated.

Seeing the error as an issue to be jointly resolved, changes it from a personal failure to a couple’s challenge and brings the mates together to solve it cooperatively. No one is discredited and both mates are viewed as competent, successful and feel closer to each other.

• Assigning fault is destructive to marital harmony. It provides a temporary sense of superiority for the blaming mate at the expense of the other’s esteem and creates a culture of criticism rather than one of compassion.
• The kind response to another person’s mistake is by empathizing with the mate’s frustration, normalizing the experience and minimizing its’ impact. “Getting lost is very frustrating and everyone does it on occasion. We have plenty of time and will get there soon”.
• Spending any time on “whose fault it is” is tantamount to “let’s attack and diminish each other’s worth”. It is destructive to both partners and must be avoided.
• When errors or even trauma occurs, each individual silently searches for his/her personal culpability. It needs to be honored as a private concern and responded to with compassion when it is shared.

• When possible, start the discussion with your own responsibility for part of the error, which helps heal rather than escalate the negative emotions. “I probably could have taken a map before we left, which would have made it easier for us to find our way”, is cooperative and makes the problem a joint concern rather than labels it as a sign of the other’s ineptness.
• Affirming your mate at times of personal shame, embarrassment and anxiety is one of the most supportive and loving acts you can undertake.
• Defensiveness can be greatly reduced when mates become the guardians of each other’s esteem. They must do no harm and only uphold the other’s worth. Facing problems with team solutions avoids looking back with blame and paves the path forward with mutual respect and love.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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