Defensiveness: one of the John Gottman’s Four Horsemen that spell doom for a marriage. We have all become defensive in our marriages, I’m sure of it. We become defensive when our view of the world or ourselves is threatened: or, when we fear our spouse is seeing us in a way we don’t want to be seen. Our spouses say something we perceive as a complaint or a criticism about us and we instinctively respond with defensiveness. It’s a kneejerk reaction that can destroy a marriage. It can stem from a simple comment that we perceive as a threat to our pride, one that pushes our buttons or threatens our desire to be right. Rather than pause and take a breath, we jump in to defend ourselves, to save face. Unfortunately, when we become defensive, we also give up the opportunity to learn and grow. We sacrifice both our personal responsibility and our power to nurture a healthier relationship on the altar of our pride.
A healthier response involves humility, becoming humble enough to accept personal responsibility, even in the face of disagreement. This involves at least three practices.
- Acknowledging our limitations. All of us have flaws. All of us have limited knowledge and limited perspectives. On the other hand, each of our spouses have knowledge and insights we do not have. We may hate to admit it, but our spouses know things we do not know. They understand things we miss. In the midst of a disagreement, it may take an extra dose of humility to admit these truths. Recognizing our own limitations and the wisdom of our spouse can help us avoid defensiveness.
- Affirm your priorities. Think carefully about what is truly most important in your life? How do you want to be remembered? What gives your life meaning and purpose? I hope family and marriage sit at the top of your priority list, well above self. I pray that you “look out NOT just for your own interests but also the interests of others,” like your spouse and family. I trust that you “love your wife as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.” When you recognize what your marriage and family mean to you and your life…when you recognize your call to serve them…they will definitely sit near the top, if not at the top, of your priority list. With that in mind, you will strive to protect your marriage and your family rather than entering a defensive mode to protect yourself. Defensiveness builds walls. Accepting responsibility and communication builds bridges. As your spouse rises to the top of your priority list, you become more likely to build bridges than walls.
- Accept personal responsibility. No one likes to admit when they make a mistake or when they are wrong. I know I don’t. But for the sake of a healthy marriage and personal growth, we need to swallow our pride, acknowledge our wrong, and apologize. From there we have the power to show the “fruit of repentance” and change. Amazingly, our spouses will love us all the more when they see we have the humble courage necessary to admit a wrong and change.
These three practices can prove challenging, but consistently practicing them will reap huge dividends in the health of your marriage. You and your spouse will enjoy the joys of a healthy, happy marriage.