To me, one of the hallmarks of love, is the ability to honor someone’s feelings. 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.
Learning to honor someone’s feelings means cultivating the ability to listen, open-heartedly, when someone comes to you and says “this thing you did… it really hurt me.” And then learning how to respond properly, lovingly, by validating the other person’s feelings, 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 here. There 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 all the time. 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 so insecure, that any form of invalidation cannot be tolerated. At the deepest level, it is when 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”). That’s when shame is triggered, and defensiveness kicks in.
When you talk to someone who is consistently defensive, no matter what you say, they immediately jump to “it’s not me. 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. I used to be 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 conflict. It is impossible to come to them vulnerably with your hurt feelings, because they will only pour salt on your wounds – making you feel wrong for feeling hurt in the first place.
Defensiveness destroys relationships. It really really does. It is a slow painful death by a thousand cuts. There can be no vulnerability. There can be no authenticity. No emotional intimacy. And the relationship becomes entirely fake until it withers away and dies.
It took me a loooong time to learn that there is another way. It came with the recognition that yes, sometimes my words or actions will hurt other people. Sometimes it will be because I was careless. Sometimes it will be because they misinterpreted my intentions. Either way, it doesn’t make me a bad person. And I don’t need to defend myself when they tell me I’ve done something wrong. I can take complete responsibility for the consequences of my actions, without feeling bad about myself.
What someone needs from me, in that moment when he comes with his hurt feelings, is to honor what he feels. For me to recognize his hurt or pain, and for me to demonstrate that I genuinely care about how he feels; how I’ve “made” him feel. If I become defensive, forget it.
People love step by step instructions. 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.
Second, you acknowledge what the person is saying (“Yes. I understand.”)
Third, internally, you allow for the possibility that they are absolutely right to feel what they feel. Their interpretations of the situation, even if based on false assumptions, are valid. Everyone has a right to feel what they feel.
Fourth, is learning to respond with love: “I’m so sorry that my action hurt you. I see why you feel this way. I understand why you feel hurt. Please know that it wasn’t my intention to upset you. Let’s talk about what happened…”
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.
This is love in action.