Getting Off the Defense
Here’s what happened with a couple we saw recently in one of our Marriage Restoration Intensives. When we asked the wife what it would take to get her marriage from a 3 to a 10 (1 being horrible and 10 being great), she said, “It would be nice if we could spend more time together at home just hanging out and not working on the computer.”

The wife’s voice was calm as she shared her need, but the husband’s reaction was swift. “What do you mean, ‘spend more time together at home’? When I’m home all you seem to want to do is sit on the couch and watch your favorite shows. How can that be spending time together? I would love to spend more time together at home, but it is not my fault this isn’t happening!”

See the breakdown in communication, and the defensiveness? The wife obviously felt they weren’t spending much time together at home. Her definition of spending time together was clearly different from her husband’s, but he reacted poorly by getting upset and defensive. The husband took her need as a direct assault on him, a claim that he was at fault. He fought back by trying to explain away his wife’s opinion.

You know the drill. You get accused of something; you feel that if you could only convince your spouse about the inaccuracy of her opinion or experience, things would get better. But things don’t get better — ever — when we try to explain away our spouse’s feelings or needs.

Defensiveness causes unhappiness and a communication breakdown because it escalates the negative emotions we’re already experiencing. Have you ever noticed your spouse calming down as a result of being defensive? Probably not.

So why do we keep doing it? Because we’re not taking responsibility for our emotions and choices. Defensiveness is a direct result of a lack of taking responsibility. Who wants to be told his or her feelings and needs are inaccurate or wrong? No one.

The Defense Rests
Since defensiveness doesn’t work, how can you start responding differently to your spouse’s hurt or unmet expectations?

Here are six responses that are more constructive.

1. Validate.
This is the exact opposite of being defensive. Validation shows that your spouse is more important to you than proving her wrong or proving yourself right. Validation is all about putting your own opinions and attitudes to the side in order to say, “Your feelings matter to me, and I want to understand them.”

2. Listen.
Instead of being defensive, try listening. When you listen, it sends a message to your spouse that he or she is important and worth keeping your mouth closed for. Listening is such an easy way to help calm someone down — as long as you are listening well.

Listening well involves eye contact, positive attitude, and good posture. Rolling your eyes and letting out sigh after sigh is not a good way to listen. Focus all your attention on your spouse and see how things start to calm down.

3. Ask questions.
Instead of being defensive, ask questions. Too few couples seem to understand the art of simply making queries.

Open-ended questions can be a powerful tool in calming down your spouse. They sound like this: “It feels like I’ve done something to upset you; can you help me understand what I did?”

The two of us use questions all the time when our feelings get hurt or when we’re feeling defensive. They’re a nice way to bring the discussion to a healthier, more rational level.

4. Allow your spouse to have his or her own opinions.
You and your spouse can’t possibly agree on everything. Michael and I are so different in personality and background that we find ourselves constantly disagreeing over meaningless things.

It’s okay to have differing opinions on many issues like food, fun, and romance. The trick is to allow for differences and to recognize what truly matters and what doesn’t. There are times when we can reach a win-win solution, but also times when we need to accept our mate’s right to another point of view.

5. Get off the facts and onto the feelings.
Defensiveness is rarely about facts. We get defensive because we’re hurting. We’re hurting because a button has been pushed — a button like feeling rejected, controlled, powerless, like a failure, and disconnected.

Ask yourself this: Has focusing on facts ever calmed down my spouse in the past? We doubt it. Discussing facts with your spouse during a confrontation usually is pointless, especially when you’re feeling defensive.

Nothing good is going to come out of such a discussion, so we need to take the topic from facts to feelings. If you’re intimidated about sharing feelings, download our list of “hot buttons” from our Web site (using the “help” button) and use it to help you identify what’s really bothering you.

6. When you can’t “stop it,” stop talking.
Calling a time-out when things aren’t going well is a healthy step. Just remember that as soon as you call a time-out, the clock starts ticking for a time-in.

When you feel defensive, ask for a break. Take time to calm down and get an attitude adjustment; prayer works best. After you calm down and (hopefully) God has humbled you, you’ll be in a better frame of mind to talk again.

Adapted from The Surprising Way to a Stronger Marriage: How the Power of One Changes Everything, by Michael and Amy Smalley

Copyright ©  Michael and Amy Smalley , published by Focus on the Family/Tyndale House, 2010, used with permission

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