When Marriage Sends You Running for Cover: Defensiveness

When Marriage Sends You Running for Cover: Defensiveness

Pulling from Dr. Gottman’s excellent book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, I’ll be posting about the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for the next 4 weeks. These are four behaviors that can really harm a marriage: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

We are in Week 3, which is all about defensiveness. Defensiveness is warding off attacks both real or perceived. Wait, so if your spouse is coming at you with contempt or criticism, are you not supposed to defend yourself? Good question.

When you are being attacked with criticism or contempt, it is healthy and appropriate to stand your ground and defend yourself. However, healthy defenses consist of setting boundaries, enforcing consequences, and making requests. Being defensive in the sense Dr. Gottman is discussing is much more along the lines of acting like a 7th grader.

For example:
Your spouse yells, “Would it have killed you to put away the clean dishes from yesterday? I have to do everything around here.”

An appropriate response might sound like this:

  • “That’s an unfair generalization. We both work hard. I apologize for not putting the dishes away, but I don’t appreciate your attitude.”
  • “I will not have this conversation while you are yelling. When you are ready to talk in a normal voice, we’ll discuss the dishes.”

A defensive response would sound more like this:

  • “Ha! If you even did half of the housework I’d think I’d died and gone to heaven.”
  • “You said you would put the dishes away!”
  • “Oh yeah? Well, would it have killed you to put gas in my car today?”
  • “You are so anal retentive about the dishes. They’re clean, it’s not like we’re going to get cockroaches if clean dishes sit out.”

Defensiveness is being preoccupied with your own innocence, rather than standing up for yourself or trying to resolve a disagreement. Don’t fall into that trap!

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