Defensiveness: How the Blame Game can Destroy Communication
A Marriage Counselor explains Defensiveness
In my last post, I spoke about the first of four communication patterns, criticism, that are destructive in a marriage. These are called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Dr. John Gottman, the researcher and marriage counseling specialist, who discovered their destructiveness in marriages. He found that couples who had the Four Horsemen divorced an average of 5.6 years after their wedding. That’s pretty scary!
As a marriage counselor, I’ve seen defensiveness be as damaging as criticism. Defensiveness is defined as an effort to defend oneself from a perceived attack. It is a self-protection in the form of either righteous indignation or innocent victimhood. It involves punting a complaint with a counter-complaint. Let’s look at a quick example. Notice how the husband refuses to accept any responsibility in this interaction:
- Wife: It bothers me that you said you’d clean the living room before our guests came over. I felt really embarrassed when they walked in to a messy house.
- Husband: How about when you didn’t vacuum last week when you said you would?
Being defensive means that you refuse to admit that you are wrong and find a way to get the blame off of you and onto your spouse. It may also show up in the form of blaming your spouse for not somehow preventing the mistake you made, which means it was their fault in the first place. For example, if you were supposed to pay the electric bill, it is your spouses’ fault for not reminding you.
There are two types of defensiveness. One form is a common stance of deflecting a perceived attack as shown in the example of the husband and wife above. Another form is the “innocent victim” posture, that is typically accompanied by whining. The message is: “Why are you picking on me? I’m not at fault here. What about all the other house cleaning I did? It’s sad that I can’t be appreciated in this marriage. I get it, everything is always my fault. Poor ole me. I’m the innocent one here.”
The main function of becoming defensive is to deny responsibility for the problem, but this only pours fuel on the flames of martial conflict because it says your spouse is the wrongdoer, the guilty one. The spouse bringing up the complaint is the one at fault. They are wrong for even bringing up a disagreement because it proves they are a “hypocrite,” “an oppressor,” or a “bully.” Basically, it’s not the both of you that have the issue, but the mean person you unfortunately happen to be married to.
The problem with becoming defensive in marital conflict is that it communicates to your spouse that you aren’t actually listening or taking his/her concerns seriously. And by introducing new grievances (Well but you didn’t vacuum last week), it can also exacerbate the argument by making your spouse feel attacked and defensive too. Essentially, this process makes your spouse the opponent in a battle, as opposed to your ally.
It is completely normal to want to defend ourselves when we perceive an attack from our spouse. It’s easier to deflect, divert, attack, and defend against a complaint rather than reflect back what your spouse is saying, validate his/her feelings, and express empathy. It makes sense to want to defend yourself, even against the first horseman, criticism, but research shows that this approach rarely has the desired effect.
Being defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so destructive. Your spouse may completely ignore your excuse or playing an innocent victim. He or she might climb further up the moral high mountain, telling you what he/she does better and it’s not as bad as what you did. You can’t win – and neither can your marriage.
What is the Antidote to Defensiveness in Marriage?
The antidote to defensiveness in marriage is accepting responsibility for even a part of the problem. The goal is to try and hear your spouse’s complaint and then take some responsibility for the problem. Even if your significant other was 90% at fault, that doesn’t free you from responsibility for things you could have done differently as well. Go ahead and take responsibility for your 10%. This doesn’t mean you are admitting to fault for the other 90%.
I get how apologizing for your 10% is difficult when your spouse doesn’t apologize for his or her 90%. But the only thing you can do is change yourself to better you and your marriage. After time, your spouse may start to let his/her guard down and accept some of the responsibility. If not, then marriage counseling from a trained Gottman Method marriage counselor will likely be helpful for you.
But what if your spouse is really 100% at fault? You can still validate his or her feelings and perspectives. You could say, “It makes sense that you feel this way because…” or “I know you get frustrated when I don’t include you into conversations at church. It bothers me that you felt frustrated and stressed.” Basically, verbalizing their complaints will typically make your spouse feel heard and understood.
Research has shown that the major cause of divorce (80% of the time) is that couples become emotionally distant and drift apart. It is as if they are “ships passing in the night.” This symbolizes a breakdown of the friendship and intimacy in the relationship. In other words, marriages typically end more by ice than fire. The Four Horsemen lead to this deterioration in a marriage.
A Marriage Counselor Can Help!
To prevent your marriage from becoming a statistic, your main focus should be on how you fight instead of what you fight about. As a marriage counselor, my focus is on skill building for managing conflict by reducing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, developing new skills for enhancing friendship, and helping you create shared meaning together.
These patterns are difficult to stop. For many couples, a trained couples counselor is required to intervene. If you would like to work with someone trained in the Gottman Method, a scientific-based couples therapy treatment, then feel free to contact me to schedule an appointment in Louisville, Kentucky. If you would like to learn more about me and what I offer as a clinical psychologist, then check out my About Me page on my website. You can also learn more about my approach to marriage counseling by checking out my Couples Counseling page.
Gigy, L. & Kelly, J. B. (1992). Reasons for divorce: Perspectives of divorcing men and women. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 18, 169-187.
Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: W W Norton & Co.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.