In many ways, defensiveness is a natural consequence of criticism and contempt in a relationship. When it shows up and how severe it is often depends on the self-esteem of the partner who’s being criticized and treated poorly. But it will eventually show up. It’s also understandable that the partner who is being attacked will want to defend him or herself against the onslaught. The problem, though, is that defensiveness is really a passive way of turning the blame back on the attacking partner. And worse still it’s like throwing a nice dry log on a roaring fire. The defensiveness just provides more fuel for the attacking partner. Defensiveness actually escalates conflict rather than tempering it. And if the cycle of criticism and contempt followed by defensive reaction continues, it will eventually lead to stonewalling, the final of Gottman’s four horseman.
One way to tamp down defensiveness as well as criticism and contempt is to develop a pattern in your relationship of accepting one another’s influence. The statistics for long-term happiness in a relationship where there isn’t shared power are pretty dismal. For example, when a man doesn’t share power with his wife, the relationship has a greater than 80% chance of self-destructing. In same-sex couples the pattern of dominance is less predictable, but it remains equally important that both partners be sharing power and accepting one another’s influence.
This isn’t about denying your disagreements, or pretending like you always see eye-to-eye. It’s about recognizing that in a relationship there are two sides to every story, two opinions about every decision, two visions for the way life should be. These things are not always going to match, and when they differ, both partners must be willing to work on seeing the other’s view and coming to an amicable solution. Put another way, winning in a relationship is not about getting your way. It’s about finding your way together as a couple.
Later today, I’ll be posting an exercise you can try with your partner this weekend. It’s a great window into how well you accept each other’s influence and gives you the chance to evaluate where the power dominance lies.