Defensiveness comes naturally to most of us. If someone accuses us of something, our natural response is to defend ourselves, to make sure that we’re not the one in the “wrong.” But defensiveness in relationships is not helpful. In fact, it’s called the third horseman of the apocalypse by relationship researcher John Gottman for a reason. The presence of defensiveness can indicate whether or not a relationship will be successful.
So what exactly is defensiveness? Here’s an example:
Did you remember to get the eggs?”
“You didn’t put it on the list, so I didn’t get any.”
“It was on the list.”
“I couldn’t read your handwriting, it’s so messy! Besides, I had a terrible day at work, and I was really stressed.”
Instead of something much more simple, which is taking responsibility for making a mistake.
Ah, oops. Yeah. I forgot the eggs. I’ll try to remember to get them tomorrow on my way home from work.”
I felt a twist in my gut when you asked me about the eggs. I felt like maybe I disappointed you. I did forget the eggs.”
Self-responsibility is one of the three skills we think are necessary for healthy, happy relationships (along with self-awareness and self-compassion.) Both partners need to practice self-responsibility, because sometimes, the complaining partner is speaking about something valid (like whether or not there are eggs,) but sometimes, the accusation might be out of fear or anger, and not about something real (for example, “I saw how you looked at that woman at the party!”)
When you are self-responsible, you speak from an understanding that your feelings are yours, and not the responsibility of your partner. And, you are not responsible for your partners, feelings, either. Instead of arguments full of defensiveness that lead nowhere, you can have conversations about how you each are feeling, that allows you to get closer to each other.
Here’s a brief video: