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.
We all have a desire to be heard. That sounds like such a simple desire, doesn’t it? But “to be heard” is more than having people within earshot to hear our voice and the words we verbalize. We also want them to understand what we are saying—to truly comprehend the meaning, the intent, and the significance of what we are saying. Even more, we want them to recognize the impact of our words and so accept our influence. We want others to respond to our words in a way that we know they consider our words as important and significant. This deeper desire to be heard is doubly true when it comes to our marriage and family.
Does that sound dramatic? Consider an example. In the presence of your spouse you say, “It’s a beautiful day today.”
If your spouse does not respond, you look toward them to see if they heard you. When you see them immersed in something else—the paper, the TV, their work, the game on their phone—for the umpteenth time, you begin to feel unimportant, devalued. You feel as if they care more about their own interests than they care about you. You feel as if you have no import, no influence in their life. “I should have known,” you think to yourself. “Everything is always more important than me.”
Or imagine your spouse responds with an irritated, even angry response: “What? It’s cold out there. You see the sun and automatically think it’s nice but it’s too cold to go outside. That’s your problem. You never look at the whole picture.” Once again, you leave feeling unheard, unappreciated, even unimportant.
Maybe your spouse looks up from the paper and responds. “You’re right. It’s a beautiful sunny day outside.” As they speak, they take a moment to look out the window at the sunny day. They have listened. They have allowed your words to influence them in the moment. They have responded. They have heard.
This deep desire to feel heard points out a wonderful opportunity to show kindness. Ironically, it’s a kindness that enhances the humility of both the speaker and the listener. Let me explain. In a study published in 2021, 242 participants were randomly assigned into 121 dyads. These dyads were then assigned to a “good listening” or a “poor listening” condition. In the poor listening condition, the listener was instructed to act distracted while the other person talked for 10 minutes about a recent experience. The “good listener” was told to listen as if the speaker was telling them “the most interesting things they had ever heard.” In other words, the good listener was to listen with curiosity. Of course, those who were listened to with curiosity reported feeling “more heard.” However, the study was about more than simply “feeling heard” by the other person. It was about humility as well. This study found that when a person listened with curiosity, several things happened.
The speaker perceived the curious listener as more humble.
The curious listener perceived the speaker as more humble. Both perceived the other as more humble when one person listened with curiosity. And…
The curious listener perceived themselves as more humble.
The speaker perceived themselves as more humble. In other words, both perceived themselves as acting more humbly when one listened with curiosity.
Think of that for a moment. When I listen to my spouse with deep curiosity, both of us experience an increase in humility and perceive the other as more humble. And—here’s the kicker—humility in marriage strengthens marriage. So, next time your spouse opens the door with a simple statement, don’t let your eyes glaze over and ignore them. Look at them with delight in your eyes and, with the curiosity of hearing the most interesting information you’ve ever heard, listen intently. It’s an act of kindness from which everyone grows.
Communication is crucial to a healthy marriage. Everyone knows that, right? We teach couples to communicate—to listen well and take turns explaining their point of view when a conflict arises. All well and good…until you have a real disagreement and give in to the temptation of making your goal to convince your spouse of the superiority of your point of view. With that goal in mind, you practice repeating what your spouse says so they know you “understand” their point of view (at least well enough to blow it out of the water). You “wait” (however impatiently) for your turn to talk. You maintain eye contact and stay calm (most likely with an air of condescension). You word your point of view in a way that your spouse will understand (or are they just stupid?). But something is missing. You never reach resolution. You both grow more frustrated and even angry. Why is it not working? Because you started with the wrong goal and, as a result, you are missing at least three important ingredients.
Humility. Effective communication is undergirded by humble listening. Good listeners humble themselves by setting aside their own agendas and listening to their spouse with the sole purpose of understanding their point of view. They do not have to prove the superiority of their own opinion. They do not listen for flaws in their spouse’s reasoning or ammunition to bolster their own argument. They listen to understand. They listen until they can appreciate their spouse’s perspective based on their knowledge and perception. In humility they acknowledge the sense of their spouse’s perspective. Humility is an essential ingredient for effective communication in marriage.
Respect. Effective communication is premised upon mutual respect. Both spouses respectfully believe the other has a valid viewpoint. They trust their spouse’s intelligence and ability to develop and grow. They respect their spouse’s knowledge and intelligence. They model that respect by listening intently, speaking politely, and disagreeing with love.
Curiosity. Effective communication assumes curiosity. To learn demands curiosity. To learn about your spouse’s perspectives and ideas starts with being curious. Remember, communication is an opportunity to “grow” something new—a new relationship, a new level of intimacy, a new knowledge. “Growing” something new assumes a curiosity about what will grow from this interaction, a curiosity that nurtures the growth of something new. Effective communication means each spouse is more invested in learning about their spouse than in making themselves known. They are more curious to know their spouse than they are demanding to be known.
If you want a really healthy marriage, add these three ingredients into your life and communication. Get curious about your spouse and humbly listen to learn more about them…and do it respectfully. When you do, you’ll discover a greater goal of communication as well. The goal is not to pass on information or convince someone of “my” ideas. The goal is to connect and grow together.
An ancient saying, included in many marriage ceremonies, states that “Love is not arrogant and does not boast.” In a roundabout way, research now supports the truth of this statement. I say “roundabout” because the truth of the statement comes by way of awe. We experience awe when we experience something that expands our view or understanding of the world. For instance, we may feel awe in response to the vastness of nature, the beauty of a truly compassionate act, or the all-encompassing beauty of a majestic piece of music. Each of these experiences expands our view of the world around us and makes us feel…well, smaller. Feeling a sense of awe plays a role in our health, happiness, and social connection. It increases our humility. In fact, individuals who report experiencing awe more often in their daily lives were rated as more humble than those who did not report experiencing awe in their daily lives by friends and family. Those who experienced awe also acknowledged their strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced way and recognized the impact of outside forces (including other people) on their personal achievements. This sounds like the very definition of humility, doesn’t it? The sense of humility, in turn, increases a person’s desire to engage with and feel connected to others. Of course, a humble person also tends to have deeper, more secure relationships than an arrogant person. A humble person is more likely to take the other person’s best interest into consideration and is more easily trusted as a result. And…trust leads to better relationships.
And there you have it…awe leads to greater humility lead to better, more secure relationships. So, if you want a better family life, experience awe together. To get you started, here are 4 ways you can experience awe with your family. (Read more in Using the Power of Awe for Your Family.)
Go for a hike in the woods. Climb to the top of a mountain and look over the
valley below. Look up at the stars on a clear night. Stand on the ocean shore
and ponder the vastness of the sea. Go snorkeling and enjoy the colors. Watch
the sunrise or sunset. Nature often elicits awe. Enjoy it as a family.
Try something new and exciting. Novelty contributes to awe. Visit someplace you have never
been before. Try something new. Go to a symphony or musical. Visit the art
museum. Go to an area of the country or state that you have never visited
before. Novelty opens the door to awe.
We experience awe when we experience a sense of smallness and we often
experience that sense of smallness when we learn something that amazes us. Get curious
and learn. Learn about the complexity of the human body, how a bird flies, the
character of God, or the wisdom of ancient sayings. Each of these can expand
our sense of the world and put our own lives in a different perspective, a
perspective of humility.
Stand in awe of God. Worship as a family. Pray as a family. Experience the awe
of answered prayer. Gather with other people and sing as a family. Many people experience
awe in the religious setting of worship.
When you do experience awe, you will
experience greater humility. When you experience greater humility, you will
experience greater intimacy in your family. The ancient wisdom is true again,
“Love is not arrogant and does not boast”…and that is awe-inspiring!
Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle, Prince Harry, Prince William…it seems they’ve been on the news every month this year. I must admit, I don’t know a lot about the royal family. But this year you couldn’t help but see some of the “royal news.” They always look good. They always present well. They smile. They show respect. They interact well with others. It all got me thinking. Maybe we want to raise our children like royalty. Here are a few tips from watching the royal family in the news to help get us started.
Royalty dresses modestly. They do not dress pretentiously or provocatively. Instead, they dress in a way that reveals respect for themselves and others. We want to teach our children to dress respectfully and modestly as well. We want them to learn that “it’s hard to speak to a person’s heart when all you can see is their parts.” We want them to learn that their dress contributes to how people see them and what people believe about their character. In other words, we want to teach our children to dress like royalty, modestly and respectfully.
Royalty greets people with a smile. They are polite and gracious in their interactions. They show respectful interest in others. Don’t we want our children to do the same? We look on with pride when our children interact with other people respectfully and politely. We teach them to treat others with grace and respect. We teach them to act like royalty. (Read The Chick-fil-A Family Interaction Model and The Mighty Power of Kindness for Families for more.)
In this age of social media, royalty posts wisely. It is not befitting for royalty to enter petty disagreements and conflicts. Instead royalty publishes on social media wisely. Let’s teach our children to do the same. (20 Family Rules for Social Media…Straight from God for some practical ideas.)
Royalty keeps private things private, not just on social media but in all areas of their life. They limit inappropriate public displays of affection and carefully monitor their speech to remain respectful, refined, and mature. Isn’t it important to us to teach our children the same?
Yes. We want to raise royalty…and these four tips will help us do it right! Why not start today?
“Oh lord it’s hard to be humble when your perfect in every way…” or so said Mac Davis in 1980. Maybe it’s even harder today. We live in a world that encourages self-promotion. Teens base their self-worth on the number of “likes” they receive for their most recent selfie…and so work to look “perfect in every way” before posting the “spontaneous” selfie. But, when it comes to creating long-term marital bliss humility is hot! A study published in 2015 explored the role of humility in relationships (Humility and Relationship Outcomes in Couples). They compared how a person perceived their partner’s humility to their relationship satisfaction and forgiveness. They also explored whether commitment played a role. They discovered that as one’s perception of their partner’s humility increased so did forgiveness and satisfaction in the relationship. In other words, a partner’s humility contributes to their partners sense of relational commitment, satisfaction, and willingness to forgive.
This begs the question…what exactly is humility and how do we increase it in our relationship? First, humility involves having an accurate view of ourselves. It means we recognize our strengths and our weaknesses. Second, humility involves having an “other-oriented” perspective rather than a selfish perspective. A humble person does not boast or act prideful. They also show a willingness to sacrifice self-gratification to meet their partner’s needs. They make self-promotion secondary to partner-promotion.
The question remains: how do we develop humility in our marriages? Based on the definition above, here are several ideas to get you started.
Acknowledge your own strengths AND weaknesses. We all have them…so admit it. If you don’t know what they are, ask your spouse and maybe a few other people who love you and know you well. Put on a tough skin and listen carefully. Don’t think so highly of your strengths that you ignore your weaknesses; don’t obsess over your weaknesses so much you neglect your strengths. Acknowledge both.
Put your spouse first. In communication your first goal is to understand your spouse because what they have to say is important. In living a healthy life your first goal is to assure your spouse has what they need to live healthy (opportunities for healthy food, rest, exercise). In entertainment your first goal is for your spouse, not yourself. In all areas, put your spouse and their needs first. You can still take care of yourself. After all, your spouse needs a healthy partner. So by all means, take care of yourself because your spouse is of utmost importance and they need a healthy partner.
Accept your spouse’s influence in your life. Let their needs and vulnerabilities, fears and joys influence your decisions, your words, and your actions. Allow their requests to influence your behavior and daily chores. Allowing your spouse to influence your words and deeds is an amazing expression of humble love.
Admit your mistakes and ask for forgiveness when necessary. We all make mistakes. A humble person acknowledges their mistakes and seeks forgiveness. They apologize for their wrong doings, even when those wrong doings are unintentional.
Offer forgiveness. A humble person is gracious in offering forgiveness. They do not demand undue retribution. They recognize that all of us (including me) have “fallen short” and made mistakes. As a result, they do not hold a grudge. They accept the other person’s apology and seek to restore the relationship.
One last thing to remember. Beauty fades over time. Skin sags, body shapes change. But, humility grow and flourishes over time. Outward beauty is hot for the moment, but humility…now that’s hot for a lifetime!
We were made for, and we long for, intimate connection. In fact, our attachment with other human beings is crucial, even necessary, for a healthy life. Marriage is one place we hope to find such an enduring connection. Unfortunately, many people find themselves feeling disconnected and isolated in marriage. This disconnected marriage brings pain and misery to everyone involved. A connected marriage brings joy. To get this connected marriage requires a few traits that are often overlooked when we speak about happy marriages. Let me explain a few.
To have an intimate marriage we need to be trustworthy. Our spouse needs to know we will keep our commitments and follow through on our promises. Our spouse will see our trustworthiness in our actions toward them and our actions toward others. If we want an intimate and enduring marriage, we need to become trustworthy people, people worthy of receiving honor and trust. (Read 6 Pillars of Trust to learn how to develop trust.)
To have an intimate marriage we must learn to trust. I realize that trusting another person leaves us vulnerable, especially if we have experienced hurt at the hands of those we loved in the past. But, without trust in a relationship both parties feel the need to protect themselves. They struggle to be completely open with one another. A wedge of secrecy and self-protection comes between them and drives them apart. We can avoid this wedge of secrecy and self-protection by becoming trustworthy people and people who trust one another.
An intimate relationship is built on the gift of empathy. We need to realize our spouse has a valid perspective and opinion even if they disagree with us. Empathy goes a step beyond that realization and demands we strive to understand our spouse’s perspective, to see the world through their eyes. We must work to understand their world so well we can understand the basis of their perspective even if we disagree with it. (Quit Taking Your Spouse’s Perspective may sound like a contradiction, but it really explains how to do this most effectively!)
A person nurtures intimacy when they remain attentive and available to their spouse. Spouses can make up to 100 bids for connection during any 10 minutes spent together (link). You can attend to these bids for connection or turn away from them, accept them or reject them. Of course, if you reject them you will experience disconnection, isolation, and anger. When we accept and respond to them we enjoy a growing sense of connection, love, and intimacy. (Learn how to respond to those bids for connection in RSVP for Intimacy)
Spouses who enjoy intimate marriages remain teachable. A teachable person loves their spouse enough to learn about them and from them. They can admit their own mistakes and apologize. A teachable person continues to learn about their spouse. They remain a student of their spouse’s interests, strengths, vulnerabilities, fears, and a myriad other things. Remaining teachable and learning about your spouse provides the necessary tools for building intimacy with your spouse.
Those who enjoy an intimate marriage exhibit humility. They are humble and learn from mistakes. They change in response to their spouse’s legitimate concerns. Humble people support one another. Humble people allow their spouse to influence them. Humble people enjoy intimacy in their marriages. (For a challenge in humility, become A Leader in Submission in your marriage.)
Behaviors and traits have consequences in our lives. Everyone knows that. That’s why we discipline and guide our children in developing traits and behaviors that will bring them the greatest success and happiness. Through discipline, we steer our children away from several negative traits, such as entitlement…and for good reason. Researchers have recently mapped out the pathway from entitlement…and it doesn’t end well. In fact, the pathway leading from entitlement begins with chronic disappointment…and goes downhill from there. (Read Entitlement May Lead to Chronic Disappointment for more) When a person believes themselves better and more deserving than others (entitled), they enter a spiral of habitual behavior leaving them “frustrated, unhappy and disappointed with life.”
First, entitlement creates feelings of disappointment. Entitled people have expectations that they deserve more than others. As a result, their expectations often remain unmet. After all, life is hard. In the words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.” Entitlement leads to disappointment in response to these unmet expectations and life’s hard knocks.
Disappointment can lead to dissatisfaction and negative, even volatile, emotions like anger. Entitled people feel like they are not getting the good things they deserve, the good things to which they are entitled. Once again, “you can’t always get what you want….” In anger at not having their sense of entitlement satisfied, they lash out at others verbally or physically. Of course, this pushes people away. The entitled person may suffer the pain of rejection and isolation along with their disappointment.
To escape the pain of these negative emotions, entitled people reassure themselves of their specialness. They reinforce their feelings of superiority, bringing temporary relief from the disappointment and other negative emotions. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time until they return to step #1 and begin the cycle again.
As you can imagine, a sense of entitlement can make your children miserable; a sense of entitlement can make your family life miserable. Who wants to live in a home filled with entitled people constantly experiencing disappointment and anger in response to perceived unmet expectations of superiority and deserving? Not me. We want a family filled with non-entitled people. What can we do to limit a sense of entitlement in our families? Begin with the Rolling Stones by teaching, “You can’t always get what you want….” Then, add these three ideas into the mix:
Practice gratitude. It’s difficult to feel chronic disappointment while noticing all the good things people do around us. And, a grateful person gains the realization that other people and their contributions are important…maybe even more important than the “almighty me.” Begin practicing gratitude in your family by modeling it. Take time to notice what other family members do for you and your home. When you notice it, acknowledge it. Let “thank you” and “I appreciate your help” become common phrases in your household.
Recognize and reward humility. You can encourage humility by modeling it. One way to model humility is by expressing gratitude. You can also encourage humility by serving. Serve one another. Offer to get your spouse or child a drink when you go to the kitchen during commercials. Help clean the house. Willingly do the “dirty jobs” around the house with a smile. Ask for help when you need it. Allow others to serve by asking ask for help even when you don’t necessarily need it. Serve those outside the family as well. Feed the homeless. Visit a nursing home. Shovel the neighbor’s driveway. You get the idea. Gratitude and service contribute to humility. Humility negates entitlement.
Praise effort and hard work. Success and opportunity arise from hard work, not because we are entitled. Accomplishment and recognition result from effort, not our entitlement. Recognize your family members’ effort and acknowledge that effort. Even when that effort has not led to public reward, praise the effort. Let effort and hard work become its own reward.
These three practices will help your family learn the rest of the wisdom from the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometimes, you might just find, you get what you need!”