Have you ever noticed when you try to defend yourself in an argument, it does not stop your partner from continuing to blame you? That’s because your partner may be feeling invalidated, or they might be hearing you say, “The problem is not with me, it is with you!” For some of you, defensiveness can be a way to shift the blame on to your partner and, as a result, make yourself 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”.
Here is an example of a defensive response to an expressed concern:
Fred: “Every time I try to spend time with you, you push me away. You’re either working or with the kids. There is no time you make for us.”
Catherine: “I’m exhausted by the end of the day. You don’t know how tiring it gets for me. I just need some space and time alone. You should understand that.”
While it may be normal for Catherine to defend herself, all Fred heard was an excuse to blow him off, his complaint not being taken seriously, and feeling blamed for not being more understanding. Chances are, a defensive response like Catherine’s will escalate the interaction. Fred may become angry and defensive with her or he might withdraw from the conversation despite feeling hurt.
Here are three ways you can respond instead when your partner brings up a concern to you:
1. Accept responsibility. It may be difficult to accept responsibility when you feel criticized or blamed for something. However, what is the point of defending yourself when it will only fuel the conflict further instead of making things better? Keep in mind, you have the option to explain yourself at another time after the conflict is diffused.
Consider trying something new by accepting responsibility – at least for your part in the issue – and see how things progress. Using Catherine’s example, here is how she can accept responsibility:
“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. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I care about your feelings, and I also appreciate you understanding how stretched thin I am right now. ”
2. Be curious & listen to understand. It is imperative to remember your partner has needs as well. They want to be heard and understood by you as much as you want them to listen to you and understand you. However, they might be making the mistake of expressing themselves harshly, which will likely bring out a negative reaction from you. By allowing yourself to react, you are no longer present. You are either in your head thinking of ways to respond or feeling too overwhelmed to pay attention.
Instead, shift your stance to that of curiosity. Ask questions non defensively with the intention of stepping in your partner’s shoes for a few moments and sincerely making an effort to understand them. This is when you refrain from interrupting them and avoid rebuttals, debates, or any kind of response where you are trying to prove them wrong. What’s more, when you ask questions gently, respectfully, and compassionately, it can positively influence your partner to soften their stance towards you.
Here is an example of how Catherine can practice curiosity, allowing her an opportunity to really listen and understand Fred:
“I get so tired juggling everything that by the end of the day, I just want to be alone. And I haven’t been paying attention to how this might make you feel. Can you help me understand what it’s like for you when I push you away?”
2. Consider needs and/or requests. Another way to prevent an escalation of conflict is by recognizing your partner’s needs and acknowledging them. Avoid presenting your own needs as a way to dismiss your partner’s needs. Remember, this is not a competition of whose needs are more important. You both have needs and you both are worthy of fulfilling them. Hence, if you have unmet needs, you can share them in a later conversation. Or, if you find that your needs and your partner’s needs arise around the same time, you can learn to gently negotiate and balance both people’s needs.
Since Catherine finds her unmet needs come in the way of her ability to meet Fred’s needs, the couple can negotiate a plan to balance both their needs. Here is how Catherine can demonstrate sincere consideration to Fred’s needs while negotiating her own:
“I feel pulled in all directions and I don’t know how to manage it all on my own. However, I can see you’re upset and your feelings are important to me. I want to make sure we find a way to spend time together once the kids are in bed. I think I would have more energy if my evenings were less hectic. What do you think about putting the kids to bed on your own so I can clean up in the kitchen and have some time to unwind?”
Catherine can also throw in a helpful solution, such as, “How about we hire a babysitter once a month so we can go out and spend some time alone together?” By responding with accepting responsibility, being curious, or considering your partner’s needs, you are more likely to diffuse the tension between the two of you. In doing so, you will also create an opportunity for a productive dialogue that leaves your partner feeling heard and cared for. Moreover, your partner will be more receptive to listening to your needs once they feel validated. When both partners feel validated and fulfilled, 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, emotional, verbal, or sexual, 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.
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