We all make mistakes, but few of us like having them pointed out.
Feeling defensive is typical, but it undermines healthy marriages. Expert Harriet Lerner notes that defensiveness is “the archenemy of listening.” Expert John Gottman lists criticism and defensiveness as two of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for marriages.
Criticism and defensiveness create separation, making communication and intimacy impossible.
In many respects, the two are opposites of each other. Criticism attacks the person, not the problem; “That's wrong” becomes “You are so stupid!” Defensiveness turns even legitimate complaints into personal assaults: “You're right” becomes a whining, “You're always picking on me,” an endless list of excuses or a counterattack with your own complaints, ignoring your spouse's concern.
Both criticism and defensiveness turn every complaint, whether made or received, into a personal attack.
Lerner says eliminating defensiveness starts by being aware you're feeling defensive. Defensiveness is listening “for the inaccuracies, exaggerations and distortions in your spouse's complaint” so you can refute the errors, make your case and remind him or her of his or her wrongdoings. Being aware of defensive feelings gives you a chance to change your response.
Take a deep breath and try to relax. Lerner says we tense up when we feel threatened, and “we always listen poorly when we're tense and on guard.” Breathing slowly, exhaling slowly and then taking long, deep breaths will help relax you.
Fight the urge to interrupt. Lerner warns that “if you can't listen without interrupting, it's a good indication that you haven't calmed down.” Interrupting typically means you're not listening, instead, you're already in a defense mode and preparing a counterattack.
Ask for specifics to help better appreciate your spouse's point and better show your understanding of the complaint. Lerner warns, however, that “asking for specifics is not the same thing as nitpicking.” This should be honest curiosity, not cross-examination, preparing for a defense.
Even if you only agree with a tiny part of the complaint, Lerner suggests looking for that part, agreeing and apologizing. Use words and a tone of voice that show sincerity, not sarcasm. This shifts “the exchange out of combat into collaboration” and shows that “you're capable of taking responsibility, not just evading it.”
Lerner explains that starting your response with “but” means you're “rebutting what you should be trying to take in.” Likewise, counterattacks mean you're not addressing the complaint. Instead, you're ignoring the grievance and not taking responsibility for your part of a problem.
Lerner advises that if you do have legitimate complaints, it's “all the more reason to save them for a time when they can be a focus of conversation and not a defense strategy.” Raising these points now make it look like all you're doing is shifting blame.
Let your spouse know you've heard. Repeat back the substance of the complaint. But don't make it a defensive whine: “Then you're saying I'm an uncaring jerk who'll never change?” Instead be objective: “So you feel I should call every night when I'm gone on business.”
Spend time talking about possible solutions. However, if you're feeling overly defensive, acknowledge it: “I need a little time to think about this.” Lerner suggests that you “bring the conversation up in the next 48 hours,” again avoiding “buts,” excuses and counterattacks. This tells your spouse that you took the matter seriously.
Lerner explains that “listening without defensiveness is a challenge of a lifetime.” Begin by recognizing the problem, breathing to relax and not interrupting. Then “give yourself a medal of honor if you achieve just that,” because you've given your spouse and your marriage an incredible gift.
©2014, All Rights Reserved. James Sheridan's website is www.marriagedoneright.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.