Don’t Let Defensiveness Ruin Your Marriage, Take The Antidote Instead

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself making defensive maneuvers when my wife and I get into an argument. I hate being wrong. I want her to understand. So, I start defensive maneuvers. Maybe you recognize some of these:

  • “Well, I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t….”
  • “But you need to understand….”
  • “Yeah, well you did the same thing last week….”
  • “You misunderstand what I’m saying… You always misunderstand me.”
  • “You always think the worst about me….”

The list goes on, but they all have one thing in common. While defending me, they put the blame squarely on my wife.

As you can imagine, defensiveness does not help end the argument. Nor does it resolve the problem or restore the relationship. In fact, defensiveness generally makes everything worse. It escalates the argument. It compounds the frustration. It increases feelings of anger. And it pushes the possibility of resolution further into the distant future.

John Gottman calls defensiveness one of the four horseman. I think that is a good category for it. It is one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” striving to conquer the opponent (your spouse in this case) while escalating the emotional war, intensifying relational famine, and hastening a marital death. Not a great strategy for a healthy marriage.

But I have good news. There is an antidote. Accept responsibility. I know, like so many other medicines, the antidote goes down hard. Nobody likes to admit their contribution to a marital problem. But, if you want to move past the problem and restore the joyful experience of an intimate relationship, you have to bite the bullet and accept responsibility for your part in the current situation. Because it is difficult to do, let me offer a couple tips.

  1. Remember the K.I.S.S. principle—Keep It Short and Simple. During an argument, our spouses will not hear a long explanation. Also, the longer we talk the more likely we slip into the familiar defensive maneuvers. So, keep it short and simple, clear and concise. “I was wrong.” “I’m sorry.” “I forgot.” The exact wording will depend on the situation; but you can always keep it short and simple.
  2. Sit in the vulnerability of responsibility. Accepting responsibility (even partial responsibility) for a problem situation or an argument leaves us vulnerable. It is an admission of at least partial fault that places us at the mercy of your spouse and their response. So, when you keep it short and simple, do not add a complaint. Just remain vulnerable. Don’t add a “but” that precedes an excuse. Just sit in the vulnerability of responsibility. Simply state an acceptance of responsibility and a willingness to accept the consequences.
  3. Don’t minimize your admission of responsibility with statements like: “So I made a mistake. I’m only human” or “Ok. One time I did that….” Simply accept responsibility and sit with the admission of responsibility. Don’t minimize.

Like most medicine, this antidote tastes terrible going down. But it has a wonderful effect. When we accept responsibility without excuse or complaint and without minimizing our mistake, we elicit empathy. We also communicate our vulnerability and elicit compassion. Moreover, we open the door for greater intimacy. Once your spouse sees you sitting with the vulnerability of admitting responsibility, they are more likely to accept responsibility for their contribution as well. Suddenly, the argument has taken a turn. You can now talk and work toward a healthy solution you can both be happy about.  

Give it a try. You will be pleasantly surprised with the beneficial results of accepting responsibility instead of getting defensive. I mean, who doesn’t want empathy, compassion, and greater intimacy?

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