This is Day 4 of a 10 day series. You can find the other days here.
Yesterday we talked about pursuing honest communication. One of the biggest blocks to honest conversations are defensive responses. Defensive responses are self-justifying and self-protective, but they do nothing to bring about resolution to any conflict.
When we “defend our position” rather than work to resolve a conflict we make no progress in our relationship. We enter into debate rather than pursue resolution. Before we completely unwrap defensiveness, it’s important to know that the automatic response of defensiveness is a good thing in some settings. If a baseball comes straight for your face and you move your head quickly to keep from being hit, that’s a defensive response that’s helpful. However being emotionally defensive is usually not a helpful response no matter how knee-jerk it is.
While we had drastically improved our communication and conflict resolution through years of marriage counseling, we still had unhealthy undercurrents beneath the surface of our relationship. Jill’s strength fed into my passivity. When our conflict went unresolved because either or both of us were responding defensively, I would isolate internally.
I would do the same thing. The slow fade of defensiveness moves from unresolved conflict to isolation. I would “lick my wounds” privately and internally rationalize why I was right. Too often I didn’t seek to understand.
My isolation eventually led into being disengaged. Externally I behaved, at times, as if everything was ok but internally I was putting up fences and harboring hurt. I was like the child who says “yes” on the outside and “no” on the inside. Many times the root of this comes from our childhood. If we grow up in an emotionally unsafe home, we learn early to agree on the outside to keep the peace. Internally, we tuck the hurt in our heart, building a case of bitterness. It’s not healthy, but it’s a form of protection we might have used to survive.
The more I was able to match my outside to my insides with courageous conversation, the fade of defensiveness began to turn around. Dialing down defensiveness has been an important part of our healing journey.
I’ve worked hard not to throw Mark’s choices into his face over and over, however we have increased our communication about the hard places. When we drive by a hotel where I know they met, or when I’m just struggling with memories, or even in times of physical intimacy, I have learned to say, “I’m thinking about this…” or “I’m struggling with these thoughts today.”
I’ve worked hard to not be defensive in those times. Exchanging humility for defensiveness, I use those times to reassure Jill that “that was her old husband” and “this is her new husband.” It’s taken self-control to dial down defensiveness but I’m glad I’ve learned that, because I see now how it has played an important role in rebuilding trust.
In order to stop the slow fade of defensiveness, we have to start in those moments of frustration. What we do in those early minutes of disagreement will set the direction for the communication. Dialing down our anger and dialing into God’s perspective makes a huge difference.
Humility and courage are antidotes to defensiveness. We’re going to talk about courage tomorrow, so we’ll focus on humility today. When we defend, we don’t listen. We don’t own our own stuff. We don’t consider how we might not be right or fully right.
Humility, on the other hand, requires us to listen. It requires us to evaluate ourselves and own our stuff. Humility approaches differences or conflict with a heart that says, “What is my part in this?”
Humility and pride can’t exist in the same room. You have to get rid of pride to find humility. The Bible tells us that “Pride comes before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) It also tells us that we have to push past our flesh (what we WANT to do) and seek out the Holy Spirit who will tell us what we NEED to do (Galatians 5:16-17).
Marriage is really about growing us up, maturing us emotionally and spiritually. It’s about learning to die to self in a healthy way because we’re becoming more like Christ. Jesus Christ didn’t WANT to go to the cross, but He knew that he NEEDED to. I don’t WANT to look at myself when Jill and I are navigating conflict, but I know that I NEED to. This helps me to not be defensive.
I don’t WANT to lay down my pride because it’s a form of self-preservation. But God’s word tells me he is my Defender—I don’t need to step into that role—it’s already filled! Here are four steps to stop defensiveness in yourself.
1) Receive what’s being communicated. You might even say, “I hear what you’re saying. Let me think on it a bit.”
2) Start your response back with “What I hear you saying is….” and repeat back what they communicated to you. This helps your spouse feel heard, regardless of whether you agree with him or her or not.
3) Ask yourself if you are responding in an old way. Maybe your parent never let you have your own opinions. Your spouse isn’t your parent, but this situation feels similar. Be careful not to impose your feelings from a previous situation onto the current situation. In the moment it may look, feel, and smell similar but this is a different person standing in front of you and they need a different response than the knee-jerk one you want to give.
4) Measure your words with an appropriate response. If you were wrong, apologize and ask for forgiveness. If your spouse has brought up a good point but needs some additional perspective, after letting him or her know they’ve been heard continue with, “Here’s my perspective….”
Don’t worry if your spouse isn’t working towards being less defensive. Stopping the painful cycles in our marriage can start with one person. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE by dialing down your defensiveness and simply engaging your spouse differently than you have in the past.
What about you? Where are you most defensive in your marriage? Have you seen defensiveness fade into unresolved issues, isolation, and even disengagement? Are you ready to take a step to turn that around as much as it depends upon you?
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