“Giulio, did you grab your sister’s cookie?”
I watch as the look on both sides the size of a comb goes from facing indignation to anger to something I can only describe as a determination of steel eyes. In preparation. His expression coincides with that of Mel Gibson, his face full of Scottish war paint, charging at the enemy shouting, “Freedom!” Giulio is also willing to defend his position until his death.
“It’s not my fault! You don’t know what happened! Why do you always catch me? It’s her fault. I didn’t do ANYTHING wrong!”
I only partially succeed in maintaining a neutral tone (laughter makes me want to escape) when I ask: “Have you had any role in that? Remember that we are all responsible for our words and our hands, no matter how others behave. “
That was 45 years ago. Suffice it to say that both children finally got a chance to tell their version of the story, an apology was whispered and we talked a lot about blaming the others instead of taking responsibility. I really earned an hour that day.
I remember that babysitting concert right now while watching a couple on my couch. The woman who speaks is not four years old, but she acts almost identically to Giulio, until “It’s not my fault” and the “I did not do anything wrong.”
Then it’s my turn. Mediating the great cookie debacle was the beginning of my lifelong fascination with helping people learn to fight right.
As you can see in this video, many people tend to be defensive when their partner points out something they don’t like or disagree with. And when the defense ambushes, it’s easy to fight dirty, not fair.
You may not have stolen your loved one’s cookie lately, but do you recognize yourself as that offended little child? Do you sometimes feel unknown or blamed by your partner or that your experience is not validated? Do you feel attacked and have to defend yourself against an extraordinary injustice?
I bet you will. The question is, what do you do next?
Maybe, like the patient on my couch, you wrinkle your face and deflect responsibility like an angry, petulant child. If so, I have something to tell you.
Make it big now! Take some responsibility! Maybe it’s partly your fault!
Now, hold on. If you don’t like what I just said and you feel activated and get ready to attack, don’t blame me. It’s not my fault. I’m just the messenger.
Oh wait, sorry. My fault. There I put myself on the defensive.
Let me breathe first and then take some responsibility. Yes, I used a humorous story to illustrate something that is not funny: a defensive style of communication is destructive and painful. Yeah Al that sounds pretty crap to me, Looks like BT aint for me either. Sorry. Can we try again?
Because I’m here to help. And this is a serious issue.
If left unchecked, defensiveness is one of the Four Riders of the Apocalypse: the predictors of divorce. So we all need to reduce our self-defense and do a better job of seeing our partner’s point of view, while helping our loved one to understand ours with maturity and kindness.
Tools to dissolve defensiveness
- Let go of reason. As you can see in the video above, one of the tools I teach my partners is a perspective-taking technique I call the other side of the clock. I encourage you to watch the demo and then try it for yourself. After all, your partner is not wrong, they are just different.
- Change your physiology. Break the pattern of silent defensive fighting. Instead of continuing to talk, take a few jumps or share a three-breath hug. Activate your parasympathetic nervous system, calm down and try to see your partner as they really are: your ally, not your enemy.
- Choose a code word or gesture that means “we are deviating, let’s start again”. I have a couple who use the word “banana” (I’m sure there’s a background story). When one of them says “banana”, it tells both of them to start over.
- Stop and count to three. Really.
- BE OWN of your behavior. No matter what the “facts” are, take responsibility. “Yeah, I forgot the cat food.” No yes, and, and definitely NO but. Once you say that, you’re defending yourself. Just put it on. Then you can give an explanation.
- Practice kind speech, both in words and in tone.
- If you are the “attacker”, be careful with your tone of voice and use a smooth start.
- If you blow it, fix it. Practice careful apology.
Remember, whether you’re 4 or 64, you’re 100% responsible for your behavior, regardless of what the other person says or does.
Is this easy? No. No one wakes up in the morning and decides to feel defensive and engage in destructive communication. But it happens. Sometimes you perceive a completely reasonable request or comment as an attack. Then overreacting or counterattacking (“Oh yeah? Maybe I did, but YOU did!” ).
At other times, your partner is being critical or even contemptuous, and you are defending yourself. And although, yes, it may feel good to sit in the moral superiority or in the chair of the innocent victim, but beware. Injured pride is a bad reason to damage trust and closeness in your relationship.
Instead, he takes responsibility: one breath, one hug, one “banana” at a time. Just like in Giulio.
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