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.
Have you ever worried about your skills as a parent? Have you ever just hoped you were doing a “good enough” job as a parent…and still had your doubts? Have you ever thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing… hopefully not destroying my children”? If you answered “yes” to any of those question, I have good news.
First, welcome to the world of honest parenting. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We all fall short. We all make mistakes; and we all learn as we go. We are a work in progress, a group of perfectly inadequate parents…and that is great news! Our times of “falling short” of perfection while doing our best to lovingly parent our children actually benefits our children. That leads me to the next benefit of being a perfectly inadequate parent.
Second, our children learn from our shortcomings and mistakes. Our shortcomings give our children the opportunity to learn how to manage stress in an imperfect work. Our mistakes allow our children to learn how to handle their own mistakes by watching how we handle our mistakes. Our ability to learn and grow through our mistakes, to accept responsibility for our mistakes, and apologize for our mistakes teaches our children to do the same. In other words, our shortcomings provide our children with the opportunity to learn how to manage the stress and “momentary hiccups” they are bound to experience in our imperfect world of relationships.
Third, being a perfectly inadequate parent makes us aware of our need to ask for help. We need to gather a community of other parents (young and old) who will lend us their eyes to see how we might improve, their ears to listen empathetically to our concerns, their shoulders upon which to cry, and their mouths to voice encouragement. We need a community with which to celebrate the joys of parenting as well as share the emotional burden of parenting. Our shortcomings drive us to that community…and that’s good news for us and our children.
Let me repeat: if you feel like you’re struggling as a parent, as if you’re inadequate, that’s good news. It means you care. You love your children…and you want to be the best and most loving parent you can. That “love covers a multitude of sins.” When you love and connect with your children, they will learn and grow even through your shortcomings. Our children learn positive lessons through our mistakes and our successes when we begin and end by building a genuine, loving relationship with them (see An Amazing Parenting Insight Learned in Three Parts). In other words, parenting that flows from a loving relationship with our children will turn our perfectly inadequate parenting into perfect parenting.
Every marital interaction falls into a box according to Dr. John Gottman. One box is the nasty box. Even happy couples find themselves in the nasty box sometimes. We’ve all been there—frustrated, critical, defensive, blaming, and even contemptuous. But unhappy couples get stuck in the nasty box. They live and die in the nasty box. Couples who get stuck in the nasty box have about 4 positive interactions for every 5 negative interactions. Read that sentence again. They have more negative than positive interactions. This ratio contributes to a lack of emotional connection. (For more on how to use this ratio to strengthen your marriage and family read Family Bank of Honor and Making Deposits in a Topsy-Turvy Bank.) Couples in the nasty box are not only emotionally disconnected, but they are also afraid of to express the vulnerability needed to “open up” emotionally. And they lack the skills needed to resolve conflict. No one wants to live in the nasty box. It’s…well, nasty and miserable. We all want to live in the nice box.
The nice box is filled with mutual respect, affection, cherishing, and trust. Unfortunately, no one lives in the nice box 100% of the time. But healthy couples offer expressions of repair when they step out of the nice box into the nasty box. These expressions of repair help decrease the tension during conflict and confirm their affection for one another. Repairs are made possible because each spouse is aware of the other spouse’s inner world. They respect their spouse’s inner world and respond to it in a loving way. Expressions of repair can include a smile, an open-ended question, an inside joke, a touch, a gesture…anything that communicates love and commitment.
Still, happy couples only spend part of their time in the nice box. Surprisingly, happy couples spend most of their time in the neutral box, even when having a disagreement. In fact, Dr. Gottman’s research suggests that happy couples spend 65% to 70% of their time in the neutral box. Unhappy couples spend only 47% of their time in the neutral box, leaving much more time for the nasty box. The ability of a married couple to sit with one another in the neutral box reveals a trust nurtured by engagement and responsiveness. It is the byproduct of work done in the past to proactively grow a healthy relationship.
In which box does your marriage reside? You can learn to live in neutral and nice box by learning about one another’s lives, expressing adoration toward one another on a daily basis, turning toward one another to overcome life’s obstacles and celebrate life’s joys, and planning a future of celebration together.