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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?

For a Healthy Marriage Complain

Let’s face it. No matter how much you love your spouse, he will drive you crazy. At other times, she will do things that frustrate you. Somehow these moments need to be addressed in order to maintain a healthy marriage. If not addressed, these frustrations will erode your Pointing fingers at each othermarriage. People in healthy marriages address these frustrations and concerns with complaints, not criticism. It’s true. They complain. They do not criticize. There’s a big difference. A complaint addresses a specific unmet need. It identifies a specific action or statement that irritates you and leaves the need to feel loved and connected unmet. A criticism, on the other hand, attacks character. It makes a global statement about the other person’s shortcomings, demeaning or belittling them. When a discussion begins with a criticism, it is sure to end poorly. The one criticized is tempted to rise up in defense, which perpetuates a cycle of decline and disconnection unless repairs are made. So, if you want a healthy, happy marriage, state your concerns as complaints, not criticisms. Here is a format for offering a complaint rather than a criticism.

  1. Realize that your frustration or irritation speaks more about you than anyone else. Other people may see the same action and not be bothered. They may simply let it “roll off their backs.” The fact that it bothers you reveals that you have a specific need. You want to get help with this specific need, not attack your spouse.
  2. With a calm voice, state your observation of a specific action or behavior that creates a need. “When I came home from work the last two days, dishes were piled up in the sink.”
  3. State the impact this behavior has on you, but do so without placing blame. The impact will identify your emotions in response to this behavior and a need created by this behavior. “I get really frustrated when I’m tired and see all those dishes. I think about how much I have to do and I get angry.”
  4. Offer a positive way your spouse could help meet your need. “If we could all put our dishes in the dishwasher when we use them it would really help me feel better.”
  5. Ask for your spouse’s input about other ways you could work together to meet the need. “Would you be willing to do that or do you have another idea for how we could work together to keep the sink clear?”

Remember, you are approaching this situation to get a positive need met, not to attack your spouse. When you voice a concern with a complaint rather than a criticism, you are limiting the chance of a defensive response and increasing the chance of getting your need met. You also open the door to work together. You increase intimacy and trust in your marriage. So, when problems arise in your marriage, don’t criticize. Complain instead.

“One Plus Eleven” Ways to Improve Your Family Life

Do you want to decrease arguing and conflict in your family? How about increasing intimacy? Would you like to increase the amount of influence you have with your spouse and children? Here is a single action that can do all that and more: listen! That’s right. listen1Listening to your spouse and children will decrease arguing, increase intimacy, and increase your influence. But, to get the benefits you have to “really” listen, not just “fake it.” You can tell the difference between “faking it” and “really” listening with these eleven tips.

  • You know you’re “faking it” when you are thinking about your response or rebuttal while your spouse/child talks.
  • You know you’re merely “faking it” when you find yourself thinking about points your spouse/child has gotten wrong, misquoted, or misunderstood.
  • You are still “faking it” when you think about ways of defending yourself and your actions while your spouse/child speaks.
  • You are “faking it” when you find yourself looking around the room and not making eye contact with your spouse/children as they speak.
  • You are “faking it” when you review accusations against your spouse/child even as they speak.
  • You are “faking it” when you check your phone or look at your texts during your conversation with your spouse/child.
  • You are “really listening” when you make appropriate eye contact with your spouse or children as they speak.
  • You are “really listening” when you ask questions to clarify and better understand your spouse’s/children’s intent, motives, desires, and emotions.
  • You are “really listening” when can restate your spouse’s/children’s message and they agree with you completely.
  • You are “really listening” when you can identify the emotion behind what your spouse or child is saying and they agree with your label.
  • You are “really listening” when you accept responsibility for your own actions and the impact your spouse/child say those actions had on them.

As you can see, listening takes some effort. It means becoming humble enough to care more about understanding than being understood; humble enough to invest more energy in understanding your spouse than you invest in making them understand you. I offer you a challenge. Practice “really listening” for the next month and see if your family life does not improve. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

Turn Your Argument Into the Best Part of the Day…Make It Bearable Anyway

When you find yourself in an argument or disagreement (notice how I say “find myself” in an argument; I never start one…well, maybe once in a while…alright, alright, so even when I start an argument) with another family member, how can you make it bearable? Who is responsible to make it “go well”—the ones who starts it or the ones who finds themselves in the midst of it? Dr. Gottman suggests that both people in the argument (the speaker and the listener) hold responsibility for the outcome; both are responsible to make the argument end well. Here are the 9 ways to help an argument end well, 4 tips for the speaker and 5 tips for the listener.

 First, the Speaker’s responsibility includes:


·     State your feelings in as neutral a manner as possible. Remain objective and state your feelings in a “soft manner” rather than an intense emotional manner. Intense emotion may overwhelm your spouse and make it difficult for them to hear what you are saying.


·     Avoid making “you statements.” “You statements” tend to blame, accuse, and attack your spouse. “You statements” will more often result in defensiveness from your spouse, escalating the argument. Avoid them as much as possible.  


·     Instead, use “I” statements to state how you feel in this specific situation. Really, the only person you can honestly report on is yourself. So, stick with “I statements” about yourself, not “you statements” about your spouse. Also, stick to one specific situation at a time.  No need to throw in the kitchen sink. Stay specific and deal with one situation at a time.


·     Convert your complaint about the other person into a positive need (or what your spouse can do to help). This offers your spouse a plan of action, a way to help remedy the situation. It reveals something about you to your spouse, increasing intimacy with your spouse.

         When the Speaker follows these four tips, it will change the whole feel of the argument.  Instead of saying, “Here’s what’s wrong with you” and “This is what you need to stop” you  will be saying, “Here’s what I feel” and “Here is a positive thing I need from you.”

 Second, the Listener’s responsibility includes:

      ·     Remember your spouse’s “enduring vulnerabilities”—their triggers, buttons, troubling memories, etc. Remembering your spouse’s “enduring vulnerabilities” will help shape your response to them. You can honor your spouse by avoiding the sarcastic or implied statements that push buttons and flip triggers. You can show love by responding with comments that calm their “enduring vulnerabilities.” 


·     Turn toward your partner by postponing your own agenda. You will still get to talk about your concerns, but postpone talking for the moment so you can listen. Have the grace to be quick to listen and slow to speak. This will endear you to your spouse and reduce the conflict.


·     Make understanding your spouse the goal. Instead of working to make sure your spouse understands your point of view, be gracious and work to understand their point of view. Let them have the first and last word!


·     Listen non-defensively by postponing your response and getting in touch with your partner’s pain or emotion. Listen to understand how this situation has made them feel. Underneath all the anger, do they feel unloved, devalued, unworthy, abandoned, inadequate?


·     Empathize—respond to their underlying feeling with compassion and empathy. Assure them of your love and respect. Reaffirm your commitment and respond to their feelings with reassurance. You will find it helps everyone remain calm when you can summarize your partner’s view and validate it with a sentence like…“I understand why you feel… because …”

 As an added bonus, here are 3 tips for both the Listener and Speaker:

1.    If you identify a negative quality in your partner, look for that same quality in yourself.

2.    If you identify a positive quality in yourself, look for that same quality in your partner.

3.    Look for the similar desires and intents throughout the argument.

Follow these tips and you will find your arguments become the best part of the day…alright, so I exaggerate…a lot. But, honestly, follow these tips and you will find the arguments resolve more quickly and more productively. They become opportunities for growing intimacy…and making up will be a whole lot more fun!

12 Roadblocks to Communicating With Your Teen

Parents want to talk with their teens but teens are often hesitant to approach their parents. Part of our teens’ hesitancy may stem from responses they have received from us, their parents, in the past. Perhaps past responses have communicated a lack of trust or acceptance. Maybe they felt blamed by us or made to feel wrong by our response. I’m sure we, as parents, do not intend to send those messages; but we do, even if we do so unintentionally. And, those subtle, unintentional messages put up roadblocks to communication. They close the bridge to intimacy with our teen. I want to warn you about 12 such communication roadblocks that Thomas Gordon identified. Once you know them, you can work to avoid them…and increase the communication with your teen. Here they are:

      ·    Excessive commands and directives communicate a lack of trust in our teen and a disbelief in their ability to do what is right or needed at the moment.


·    Constantly warning and threatening our teen with consequences builds a wall of fear between us and them. When we warn and threaten our teens, we build resentment and invite our teen to test the real bite (the truth) of the warning or threat.


·    Moralizing and lecturing often increases feelings of guilt in a teen—a sense that he is “bad.” Communicating in this way often leads to rebellion against the “shoulds,” “oughts,” and “musts” that parents generously sow throughout the moralizing lecture.


·    Giving solutions and unsolicited advice sends the message that we have no confidence in our teen’s judgment or ability to find a solution independently. If teens “buy” the message about their lack of ability to solve problems on their own, they may become overly dependent on others.


·    Giving logical arguments can backfire, sending the message that we believe our teen “doesn’t know anything.” Constantly giving logical arguments makes our teen think we consider them stupid, inadequate, or inferior. And, a teen may go to drastic measures just to prove the argument wrong and so prove his point.


·    Criticizing (judging) and blaming makes a teen feel inferior, unworthy, devalued, and bad. Critical, blaming statements evoke counter-criticisms from teens in an effort to save face. Criticize, judge, or blame and welcome an argument. 


·    Praising can have several negative effects. Check out How to Ruin Your Child with Praise
to see some of these negative effects.


·    Name-calling, ridicule and shame all have a devastating effect on any teen’s self-image.


·    Analyzing and diagnosing (i.e., telling a teen what their motive or feeling is) sends the message that “I know you better than you know yourself. If you disagree, you are wrong.” This intrusive communication style only leaves one way for a teen to become their own person—rebel!


·    Reassuring and consoling discounts your teen’s emotions and sends a message of our own discomfort with difficult emotions. It informs our teens that our emotional comfort is more important than accepting their emotional struggle and connecting with them in that struggle.


·    Questioning and interrogating…who likes to be interrogated? Many teens shut down in response to what they perceive as too many questions. Try sitting with a little silence and allow your teen time to talk.


·    Distracting and diverting can make teens feel like you are minimizing their pain, excitement, concerns, or joys. They feel unheard and devalued.

 When parents consistently respond to their teen in these 12 ways, walls arise, roadblocks get put in place, communication suffers, and intimacy falters. You might be asking, “If these 12 things block communication, what can I do to enhance communication?” I’m glad you asked! To enhance communication, use “simple door-openers.” Respond with statements that open the door to more communication…statements like “really,” “That’s interesting,” “Hmmmm.” These “simple door-openers” reveal your interest in and acceptance of what your teen is saying. They focus on your teen’s ideas, feelings, and judgments rather than your own (See 5 Ways to Look out for Number 1). That paves the way for conversation, bridges the communication gap, and creates intimate relationships!