I thought I was above the negative relationship behavior ascribed dramatic names by marriage therapists, like "co-dependent" or "passive-aggressive." I'm in a happy marriage—so I never considered that advice on conflict resolution really applied to me. But it turns out I regularly fall into one really bad relationship trap.
Verily has written pretty extensively about Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” theory before—but it wasn't until I recently sat down to really study it closely that I was totally floored and humbled. As it turns out, I struggle with one of Gottman's Horsemen of relationship doom in particular: defensiveness.
Getting to know and properly understand what defensiveness is has not only forced me to re-think the way that I handle conflict and respond to criticism in my marriage, but it’s also helped other relationships in my life, too.
You don’t have to be on the fast-track for divorce to struggle with potentially toxic habits like defensiveness. But with a little self-awareness and intentionality, you can overcome this habit, even if it's a knee-jerk reaction done in the name of protecting yourself.
What are Gottman’s Four Horsemen?
After years of studying real couples, Gottman concluded that there are four big communication patterns that can signal unhealthy conflict patterns: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
It’s not that fighting is bad—in fact, conflict is unavoidable and can be a positive thing when handled in the right way—but engaging in any one of these four behaviors should always be off the table for a happy couple when they’re working through a disagreement. Gottman goes as far as to say that these four habits are the biggest predictors of divorce, if left unchecked.
We’re all naturally more prone to one or two of these toxic habits than the others. I discovered that my biggest struggle is with defensiveness, sometimes perpetuated and aggravated by the fact that my partner is prone to criticism. Defensiveness is a very common struggle that is often easily disguised as “standing up for yourself” or “setting the record straight." I know that’s how I usually excuse it to myself when I’m getting defensive.
While it may make me feel better in the heat of the moment, I’ve seen this Horseman rear its ugly head and escalate an argument between my husband and I time and time again, leaving him feeling unheard and unloved. And it's a problem.
What is Defensiveness, and what’s wrong with it?
When people get defensive, it’s usually because they feel the need to ward off an unjustified attack (whether actual or perceived). The problem with this is that defensiveness translates to not taking responsibility for whatever negative effects our behavior had on someone else when they confront us about it.
It’s only natural to want to correct someone if we think they got the facts of a situation wrong, but ultimately, instead of expressing our point of view in a healthy and balanced way, defensiveness tends to deny any and all responsibility, and attempts to push the blame for a problem on to someone else.
As The Gottman Institute explains, “Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, that we are blowing them off.” Boiled down, this means that defensiveness is a way to blame your partner. It is often more about fighting to win rather than fighting to fix the issue.
My husband hates tardiness with a passion—and does everything to avoid the stress a rush causes. My concept of time is, to put it mildly, the polar opposite. But because I know how much timeliness means to my husband, I do try my best to plan carefully so that I won’t be late, but it doesn’t come naturally—at all.
So when he frustratedly expresses (sometimes accurately, sometimes inaccurately) that we're going to be late for something and I’d "better hurry up," my instinct is to defend myself.
But I find I'm also defensive beyond the heat of the moment. For example, if he tries afterward to tell me how my tardiness made him feel, I’m inclined to snap back, “Well, I had to do the dishes and get our daughter dressed on top of everything else, so maybe if you’d helped we’d be on time.” Or, if I'm having a good day, I’ll just say something like, “Well, we got here on time anyway, didn’t we?”
Sure these are small things, but they add up. At best, I’m invalidating his feelings; at worst, I’m pushing the blame back on him instead of opening up a constructive conversation. It's a terrible habit to get in.
How can we stop defensiveness in its tracks?
If, like me, you’re prone to defensive reactions, Gottman offers some solutions:
01. Accept responsibility and offer a genuine apology for your part in the conflict.
Even if you're not necessarily the only one at fault, you can still validate your partner’s feelings and perspective first and foremost by at least apologizing for making them feel a certain way. For example, I could say, “I’m so sorry, I know you hate being late, and I wasn’t ready as soon as you would have liked. I’m sorry you felt stressed and anxious.” Essentially, verbalizing their grievances will usually make your partner feel heard and understood.
02. Refrain from generalizations.
Talk about your specific feelings about what’s happening in the moment—using “I” statements and express a positive need without generalizing (e.g. using phrasing like "you always..." or "every time"). This helps the other person understand where you’re coming from and what your experience was in contrast to their own, without you placing blame on them or refusing to accept any responsibility for your part in the conflict.
For example, after acknowledging his feelings and offering a genuine apology, I could then say to my husband: “I know I struggle with timing—I think I was trying to do too many things at once and should have asked for your help earlier. Next time, I’ll try and remember to do that if I feel like I’m struggling, but also something that would really help me to be on time is if you could try and remember to offer to help well ahead of when we have to leave.”
03. De-escalate and do something to make you feel like you're on the same team.
First, it's a good idea to simply take a time-out so that you can calm down and collect your thoughts—which can also soften our tendencies to get defensive.
You can also diffuse the tension and feel close by breaking the physical touch barrier we often put up during fights. As Verily contributor Kathleen O'Beirne explains, "Holding hands or sitting close while discussing a problem can help ease tension during an argument for some couples." And it can be a game-changer.
If you struggle with defensiveness or another one of Gottman’s Four Horsemen and find yourself reverting to this negative habit every time a relationship fight comes up, don’t panic; it is totally possible to rewire yourself to handle conflict like a happy couple.
The first step is having the courage to find out which potentially toxic behavior you’re most prone to, admitting this to yourself and your partner, and bringing that awareness with you in every interaction you have in the future. As certified Gottman therapist and Verily writer Zach Brittle said, focus on how you fight instead of what you fight about, and you’ll find that conflicts don't necessarily need to be about surviving battle, but are an opportunity to get closer.