Conflict and defensiveness

 

In every relationship, romantic or otherwise, feelings get hurt. They just do. On one side, or the other, or both, occasionally. Knowing how to handle these situations properly, makes or breaks most relationships. (I’ve written about my problems with conflict before. Here, I’m sharing some new healthier approaches to conflict management). 

To me, one of the hallmarks of love, is the capacity to lovingly honor someone’s feelings in the course of a conflict.

Learning to honor someone’s feelings means cultivating the ability to listen, open-heartedly, non-defensively, when someone comes to you and says “hey, this thing you did… it really hurt me.” And then learning how to respond properly, lovingly, by validating the other person’s feelings, taking responsibility when appropriate, being accountable, and demonstrating that you care about them. 

In recent years, Dr. John Gottman has become one of the leading authorities on making marriages work. One of the most famous findings of his decades of research is something he calls the Four Horsemen (as in “… of the apocalypse”).

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.

These Horsemen are four behaviors, four qualities of relating, that his research identifies as spelling almost-certain disaster for a marriage. I would take it further and say not just marriage, but any close relationship.

These behaviors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. You can read much more about them hereThere are many many articles available on this subject. I won’t go into complete detail in this post. I trust that you can google it if you’d like to learn more.

I do want to just address one of these, though, because it is so close to my heart – defensiveness. Here is Gottman’s definition: Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you. As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.

It is something I used to do a lot (more so internally, than in actual expression, but the results were the same.). It is something I had to unlearn through lots and lots of painful self-reflection. Defensiveness, always defending yourself whenever you feel criticized, comes from low self-esteem. It happens when people are insecure, when their sense of self is fragile, and any form of blame, or responsibility for wrong-doing, cannot be tolerated. At the deepest level, it is when any sort of criticism is incorrectly taken to be a reflection of self-worth. (“If what he says about me is true, then that makes me a bad person” or “If I am to blame for this mistake, then I’m completely worthless.“). That’s when shame is triggered, and defensiveness kicks in to counter the shame. It tries to deny the truth of the criticism, deflecting blame and responsibility, in order to prevent a collapse of the fragile sense of self. 

When you deal with someone who is consistently defensive, no matter what the circumstance, whenever you try to bring something to their attention, they immediately respond with “It’s not me. It’s you. This is not my fault. It is your mistake. I’m innocent.” They don’t say it quite so directly most of the time, but that’s the message you receive.

You know people like this. It is incredibly frustrating to deal with these people. It is impossible to raise any sort of relationship issues. It is impossible to air out or resolve conflict. It is impossible to come to them vulnerably with your hurt feelings, because they will only pour salt on your wounds – invalidating your perceptions, and making you feel wrong for feeling hurt in the first place.

You say: “Ouch, you just stepped on my foot! That really hurt.” And their response is: “No I didn’t. Don’t be such a baby. You shouldn’t have put your foot there in the first place. What are you doing standing so close to me anyway?

(Actual example from a real life experience).

Defensiveness destroys relationships. It really really does. It is a slow painful death by a thousand cuts. Being in a relationship with a person who is constantly defensive and never takes responsibility means that you will always be to blame, no matter what happens. Everything will always be your fault, never theirs. They will never learn from their mistakes. They will never change or grow. They will never take steps to avoid hurting you, they don’t seem to care if you get hurt. And if you believe and internalize their opinions, then your own self worth begins to diminish.

With them, there can be no vulnerability. There can be no authenticity. No emotional intimacy. No healthy repair. And the relationship becomes entirely fake until it withers away and goes to dysfunctional relationship heaven.

It took me a loooong time to learn that there is another way. It came with the recognition that of course, sometimes my words or actions will hurt other people. I can try and try to be perfect, never wanting to cause anyone harm, but I’m not perfect. No one is. We all cause each other pain all the time; it’s practically unavoidable. But that doesn’t make someone a bad person, just a flawed imperfect human.

And I don’t need to get defensive when someone tells me I’ve done something wrong. I can take that on and own it. Then we can calmly sort out both sides of what happened, and I can take complete responsibility for the consequences of my actions, navigating guilt when I screw up, apologizing when appropriate, without feeling bad about myself as a person. 

When someone I care about comes to me with his hurt feelings, he needs me to honor what he feels. He needs me to compassionately recognize that is hurt or in pain, and for me to demonstrate that I genuinely care about how he feels; how my words or actions made him feel. I caused him pain, and if we are to be in some kind of relationship together, he needs to know that I care about that. That I want and need to know when that happens, so that I can apologize, correct my behavior, and learn not to do that again. 

If instead I become defensive, if I see his hurt feelings as an attack, if I immediately need to make him wrong, or convince him that he shouldn’t be upset, or defend my innocence, or I get angry and retaliate – forget it. That doesn’t work. This kind of response lets him know that I don’t care that he’s upset, I don’t want to hear about his hurt feelings, and I’m going to continue doing whatever I want, regardless of the pain it causes him. 

People always ask for step by step instructions on things like this. So here are some steps to follow if you tend to get defensive in your relationships:

First, you allow the person to express himself completely. You listen without interruption. You don’t cut him off. You don’t get angry. You don’t huff and puff and throw a tantrum. You don’t retaliate with nasty words trying to destroy him. 

Second, you acknowledge what the person is saying (“Yes. I understand.”). If you don’t understand, ask for an explanation or further clarification. 

Third, internally, you allow for the possibility that they are absolutely right to feel what they feel. Their interpretations of the situation are valid (even if you don’t agree, even if they are based on false assumptions or mistaken intentions). Everyone has a right to feel what they feel, and to interpret the world through their own point of view. 

Fourth, is learning to respond with love: “I’m so sorry that my actions hurt you. I see why you feel this way. I understand why you feel hurt. I understand how my words sounded, or how my actions made you feel. Please know that it wasn’t my intention to upset you; I feel bad that I have. Let’s talk about what happened. I want to learn how to do it better in the future, so you don’t get hurt.

When you respond to someone this way, it lets them know that their feelings matter to you. It lets them know that you are sensitive to their pain. It lets them know that you care about them. This is how you honor their feelings without defensiveness. 

This is love in action.