Defensiveness in Marriage - Verily
Being a strong woman doesn’t mean rejecting humility.

I’m standing by the sink, the soap suds still dripping off the yellow dish gloves on my hands, frozen in disbelief that we’ve found ourselves here yet again. Stuck in an argument about something laughably trivial, like me running five minutes late or him eating the last chocolate cookie—we repeat the same tired old patterns over and over again, making me want to smash the plate that I’m holding. Then suddenly it hits me: I know how to fix this, but am I willing to? What’s stopping me?

These days, when I’m teetering on the brink of resolving a fight with my husband, I hear an insidious little voice in my head whispering, “Don’t back down, you didn’t do anything wrong; if you apologize, you’ll be letting yourself down—you’ll be letting womankind down,” as if my relationship with my husband isn’t just a personal relationship between two nuanced individuals but a battleground for the sexes in a universal sense. I sometimes wonder if that same fear has been driving Taylor Swift over the past tumultuous year or so of her life.

When I first heard Swift’s single “Look What You Made Me Do” at the end of August, I immediately hated it; I hated it deep down in my gut with a passion that surprised me because I have been a big Swift fan for many years and loved her last album. Listening to it again recently, I realized that I hated it so much because it hit a nerve; it plays to my worst tendencies, that niggling desire to retort, “You made me do this, you broke this, this is all your fault” whenever something goes wrong. It dresses defensiveness up as strength and implies that humility and self-awareness are somehow nonfeminist.

Everyone makes mistakes, and I can’t even begin to imagine how painful it would be to make one in the public eye. But there’s a saying that it’s not your mistakes that define you, it’s how you handle them. So when the release of “Look What You Made Me Do” seemed to confirm a new direction for Swift’s message and music that involved such a violent embrace of a revenge narrative and a total abdication of personal responsibility, I didn’t have high hopes for her new album, Reputation.

Having listened to the whole album after its release this past weekend, though, I’ve realized that there’s a tiny glimmer of something unexpected amongst the more predictable anti-apology anthems such as “I Did Something Bad,” in which she quips, “They say I did something bad, then why does it feel so good? Most fun I ever had, and I’d do it over and over and over again if I could, it just felt so good.” The quieter, more reflective track near the end of the album, “Call It What You Want,” surprised me with its self-awareness, sudden vulnerability, and occasional flashes of humility: “I know I make the same mistakes every time, bridges burned, I never learn . . .”

Yes, even in this song it’s still Swift against the world, battling the bitterness of a ruined reputation. But it’s her sole focus on the good opinion of the man she loves who sees her as if she’s “brand-new” that gave me pause. Throughout the album there seems to be a common theme about this man, this kind of pure love that sees you for who you really are, good and bad; it’s as if she’s saying that through the mess of life, the one thing that matters is a relationship like this. “I want to wear his initial on a chain ’round my neck; not because he owns me but because he really knows me,” she sings.

There’s a kind of strange irony in the fact that by forgoing any claim to responsibility for the mess you find yourself in, you are actively disempowering yourself by removing your ability to make things better, to claim your own power and agency in any given situation and take responsibility for your actions like a mature adult. Yes, women seem to have a natural tendency to doubt ourselves and apologize too much, and yes, I truly believe women are taken advantage of in many ways, ranging from the large-scale and very overt to small-scale and very subtle. But that doesn’t mean we need to ditch humility and forget the art of a good apology, whether at work or at home.

In fact, apologizing less for things I shouldn’t apologize for should only help me apologize more readily for the things I truly should apologize for. Saying fewer insincere “sorrys” when I assert my existence to the man who cut me in line and is acting as if I’m not there, for example, might help me give a real sorry to my husband when it actually matters.

I recently shared my own experience with defensiveness, one of Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Quitting an addictive defensive habit doesn’t mean that you have to roll over and claim all the fault in every single situation in your marriage just to avoid conflict; it doesn’t mean that you stop expressing your point of view, even when that clashes with your spouse’s, or throw your own needs by the wayside. On the contrary, it should empower you to be more sensitive to your partner’s needs and to express your own in a healthier way. It should help you build a deeper level of trust and help you both to be more open and vulnerable to each other. It should mean you both end up offering more genuine and heartfelt apologies to each other, more regularly.

The antidote to defensiveness is vulnerability and the deepening of trust; if Swift’s album has toxic defensiveness in spadefuls, it also contains a clue to the remedy.

Ultimately, I won’t have a happy marriage or a happy life if I’m constantly on the defensive, believing the lie that accepting responsibility for a fault is a sign of a weak woman. Next time I find myself in that horribly familiar place with my husband—because, let’s face it, our lives are long, and marriage is a constant learning curve—I’m going to try and remember the quieter message of Swift’s latest album. The one that reminds us that bonds of trust take time to build and that when we find people who love us for who we truly are, faults and all, embracing vulnerability and humility is suddenly not as impossible as it sounds. We just have to be willing to do it.