(Miss the beginning of this series? Check out the other posts!)
Who among us likes to be wrong? Let’s see a show of hands…. Pride is one of the most apparent displays of the fall of man. Most humans hate to be wrong and hate to admit when they are wrong. Even those who apologize for everything and walk through life with kick me signs on their backs don’t like to admit they are wrong. Their demeanor is a result of trying to lay low and produce harmony. It’s not because they have no pride.
One downfall Eric and I have experienced in our relationship is blaming each other for misplacement of items. It’s almost as if we assume the other person has lost the item before we stop and ask ourselves, “Did I use the letter opener last? Maybe I loaned the book to someone? Could it be that we are out of stamps and that he/she didn’t just misplace them?” We have improved greatly in this area, but in those early years it was nothing for us to just assume that the other had mindlessly lost something the other one of us was now looking for.
Let’s just say that neither Eric nor I are naturally gracious when we are being accused of something we didn’t do. In fact, we’re not all that gracious when we’re being accused of something we did do ~smile~. I have experienced the humbling that takes place when I realize I am to blame and I’ve experienced the inner laughter of vindication when Eric realizes he is to blame. It’s all kind of petty, really. ~smile~ But, it happens!
If you’ve been following the Four Horsemen series, you’ll see that the road from criticism to defensiveness is not a long one. First, a couple starts out by criticizing each other – thus defaming each other’s character. (e.g., “I see you forgot to take the trash out again. You are so irresponsible.”) Next, contempt sets in. (e.g., “Your nasty parents hardly ever take their trash out either. Why should I expect you to be clean and tidy when you come from a family of slobs?”) And, after contempt eats away at a relationship, defensiveness comes in and makes a further mess.
Female: “I just don’t get it! What is so flippin’ hard about remembering to take out the trash? Do you want me to draw you a picture?”
Male: “I didn’t forget to take it out. One of the kids was supposed to take it out this week!”
Female: “Oh, really? Did you tell them to take it out or were they supposed to read your mind?”
Male: “Of course I told them! And it wouldn’t hurt for you to take a turn at taking out the trash. You create most of it!”
Female: “Sure I do, by cooking your meals, changing your kid’s diapers, and throwing away the junk mail that you never take the time to look through.”
Male: “Oh, get a life you old nag!”
When an argument begins, we always have the option of stopping it right away. When we are accused of something, we have the power to respond kindly with something like, “I don’t think I made the error you’re speaking of, but I’ll be happy to look into it. I sure am sorry for the confusion.” That doesn’t mean our spouse is going to stop spewing hatefulness at us, but it sure becomes less appropriate to yell at someone who is not reacting.
But, the reality is that we often choose not to jump out of the argument. Generally, when our pride is hurt, we continue the crazy cycle by becoming defensive. Defensiveness keeps an argument going and does not create positive results. Even if you prove yourself to be right through defensiveness, you have allowed an ugly situation to get uglier. Who cares if you’ve been proven right if you and your honey are screaming at each other?
Besides, when a couple reaches the point where they are being defensive, no one ultimately wins because we can always think of reasons why something in the situation is not our fault. Even if we grasp at straws, we can always come up with accusations that make us look good and our partner look bad. No one has to teach us how to do this. It is our sinful nature. Even in the Garden of Eden, Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. They were both to blame and once a couple starts acting defensively towards each other, they are both to blame as well.
The more a person is insecure, the more likely he or she will act out defensively (though almost anyone can be pushed to his or her breaking point). Dr. Gottman says, “If you are being bombarded with insults, the natural inclination is to defend yourself from attack.” It takes a lot of strength to withstand the temptation to become defensive. A lot of fights break out when couples are tired and we don’t have the strength to think as clearly during those times.
When we do take the high ground (and it can be quite steep at times) and we refuse to react defensively toward our partner, we can defuse a situation, bring our partner out of his or her tirade, and hopefully allow each other the chance to get to the bottom of the issue. At this point it’s not about winning or even defending your honor – it’s about figuring out the real problem and resolving it.
Gottman discusses a few different forms of defensiveness in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail… and How You Can Make Yours Last.
As with the other horsemen, Gottman’s book contains another self-test – this one titled, “Self Test: How Defensive Are You?” I recommend purchasing this book and taking this test. Defensiveness is an immature response to a verbal attack. It’s a natural inclination, but mature people find other ways to settle disputes (well, most of the time ~smile~).
Do you jump on the defensive as soon as you perceive a character attack?