Have you ever noticed when you try to defend yourself in an argument, it does not stop your spouse or partner from continuing to attack you? That’s because what your spouse hears when you defend yourself is, “the problem is not with me, it’s with you”. Defensiveness is a way for us to shift the blame on to the other person and, often times, make ourselves the victim. Thus, defensiveness tends to escalate an argument rather than diffuse it. Rarely will your partner back down and say, “okay, I’m sorry, I understand”. Furthermore, if contempt and/or criticism weren’t already present in the argument, they will likely show up in the face of defensiveness. Let’s look at an example:
Your spouse: “Every time I try to hug or kiss you, you push me away. You’re either working or with the kids. There is no time you make for us.”
You: “I’m exhausted by the end of the day. You don’t know how tiring it gets for me. I’m not in the mood and just want to sleep. You should understand that.”
While it’s natural for you to respond this way and defend yourself given the situation, all your spouse heard is either you making an excuse to blow them off, their complaint not being taken seriously, or them being blamed for not being more understanding. Most likely, such a response will only elicit more criticism or contempt from your spouse.
So, how should you respond? By accepting responsibility. Yes, it’s difficult to do so when you feel criticized or attacked. But what is the point of defending yourself when it will only further fuel the conflict? Consider trying something new by accepting responsibility, at least for your part in the issue, and see how things progress. Instead of saying how tired you are, try saying something like, “I struggle to balance everything between kids, work, and the house. This leaves me tired by the end of the day and I tend to forget to make time for us. I do need to work on prioritizing time for us too.”
You can even take it a step further and throw in a request, such as, “Can you help me with making dinner on weekdays so I feel less tired and more able to spend time with you once the kids are off to bed?”. Or you can throw in a helpful solution in an attempt to meet your spouse’s need, such as, “What do you think about getting a babysitter once a month so we can go out and get some time alone to ourselves?”
Chances are, such a response will diffuse the tension and instead, create an opportunity for a productive dialogue that leaves your spouse feeling heard and cared for. What’s more, as a result of your spouse feeling heard, he or she will be more willing to hear and understand your needs as well! When both partners feel heard and their needs are met, it can make a world of a difference in the relationship.
It is important to mention, however, if you are involved in an abusive relationship, whether its physical or emotional, it will be unlikely for your spouse or partner to change their abusive behavior based on your changed responses. You may even open yourself up to more vulnerability with them. If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, it is best to seek help from a professional.