There’s this married couple. Let’s call them John and Cindy because we’ve made them up. Like all married couples do at one time or another, John and Cindy have fallen into a routine. Unfortunately, this routine has nothing to do with bedtimes or Sunday night Westworld sessions or sex. This one is a little more unhealthy: Whenever Cindy brings up any subject that could be considered even remotely touchy, John goes into full red-alert mode. Something as innocuous as “Did you take the garbage out?” is met with, “No, with work and everything else I had to do today I didn’t get around to it. Do I have to do everything around here?” Unwilling to see it spiral into another fight, Cindy tends to drop the argument.
Sound familiar? If it does, know that this behavior can lead to a relationship death spiral. “Defensiveness is just one of those things that wears you down over time,” says Dr. Jisun Fisher, a licensed psychologist and certified positive psychology practitioner. “Your relationship dies a death of a thousand paper cuts.”
Defensiveness is a gut reaction to feeling alone or unfairly attacked or criticized. However, having that defensiveness be a default reaction sends a message to your partner that their feelings don’t matter. So, when that defensive reflex rises, what can be done to keep it in check? According to Fisher, here are seven ways to stop being so defensive.
Hit the “Pause” Button
When your partner comes at you with a query, don’t immediately go on the defensive. Take a second to hear what’s being said and understand it before your craft your response. “We’re wired to retaliate when attacked,” says Jean Fitzpatrick LP, a relationship therapist in Manhattan. “By taking a breath, you give yourself time to shift your focus inward and to find a more constructive way to respond.”
Acknowledge What Was Said
Rather than trying to come up with a retort, let your partner know that they’ve been heard. The simple act of showing that you were actually listening can help your partner to see that you place value on their feelings. “Repeat back to them, using their language, what you heard them say,” says Fisher. “A simple acknowledgment that you’ve heard your partner can be enough to diffuse the situation.
Defensiveness is a gut reaction to feeling alone or unfairly attacked or criticized. However, having that defensiveness be a default reaction sends a message to your partner that their feelings don’t matter.
Change Your Focus
A lot of men tend to think that they’ve got to handle everything on their own. This means that when they’re questioned about anything or their partner even suggests brainstorming a solution to a problem, some men can feel as though they’re being undermined. “Your success as a dad doesn’t depend on accomplishing every task single-handedly,” says Fitzpatrick. “When your partner offers input, what if she’s not seeking to undermine or criticize you? What if she’s trying to work together?”
Keep Your Emotions in Check
Your emotions can betray you, especially when they’re right at the surface. In an argument, try and keep emotion out of it. “As soon as you feel emotions bubbling up, imagine removing your emotions from wherever you feel it in your body and placing it aside in a container outside of your body,” says Fisher. “When we get overwhelmed with a rush of emotions, we literally get stupider. So remove emotions from the equation.”
Remember That It’s a Partnership
In the old days, marriages often had clear boundaries. The man went to work, the woman took care of the house. And very rarely, if at all, would those boundaries overlap. However, that’s not really the case these days, and marriages tend to have much more give and take in terms of responsibilities. “In a partnership marriage there’s a lot of task overlap, and spouses tend to step on each other’s toes,” says Fitzpatrick. “When that happens, check in with your wife instead of snapping back. ‘That sounds like a criticism,’ you might say. Or ‘I got it.’ Or even ‘Great idea, I’ll try it, thanks!’
No matter how small it may seem to you, there is something you did or didn’t do that caused your partner to approach you in the first place. When that happens, own it. If you didn’t take out the trash or get the car serviced, accept it and offer to do better going forward. “It may not have been intentional,” Fisher says. “Regardless, your partner feels pain or neglect from your actions. It may be their perception as they don’t understand your intention, but accept responsibility that some action or behavior on your part caused this.”
Tell Yourself: It’s Not About You
This is a good rule in any marital disagreement. When a spat arises, take a moment to see the argument from your partner’s side. Maybe they had a rough day, maybe they’re feeling overwhelmed or that they’re carrying too much of the load at home. “Being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to consider other reasons why they may be acting the way they are can often help us to calm down enough so that we can decide how we want to respond,” says Alisa Kamis-Brinda, LCSW, LCADC, owner and psychotherapist at Serenity Solutions, LLC in Philadelphia. “Otherwise, we may end up responding in a way that might have negative consequences on the relationship or in a way that we may later regret.”