Defensiveness can quickly damage a relationship and lead to disconnect, sabotaging True Intimacy that God has designed for marriage. Defensiveness can escalate conflicts, build walls, and separate hearts. Defensiveness is so damaging Dr. John Gottman has named it as one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” when it comes to predicting divorce.
According to Gottman, defensiveness is an attempt to protect ourselves from a perceived attack. It is a response that can often be expressed whether we are being attacked or not. Many people become defensive when they feel they are being criticized. It may have been modeled in our family of origin as the acceptable response to this perception, or perhaps it has become a learned response to protect against getting too close or looking at the issues of our own heart. Sometimes triggers have very little to do with our spouse and much more to do with the things going on inside of us. When we are feeling defensive, it is helpful to recognize it, own it, and ask ourselves, what am I feeling that makes me respond in a defensive manner?
So what is underneath the layer of a defensive response? At the very core of defensiveness is this painful thing called shame. Shame is outwardly expressed as embarrassment, self-condemnation, fear and hiding. Shame is the opposite of respect and esteem; it is the emotional expression of failure. Shame often shows up as defensiveness and is designed by our self-protective instincts to keep us from facing the pain of our own failures and limitations. It is intended to keep others from seeing our failures and faults. Shame can often cause us to be super sensitive. The solution to shame is acceptance despite imperfections. Counteracting shame requires vulnerability and authenticity. Non-judgmental grace and acceptance is what encourages guilty and ashamed spouses to take off their defensive masks.
When our spouse is being defensive, it can often leave us feeling unsafe, unheard, and de-valued. It makes it very difficult for honesty to be at the heart of the relationship. We must remember that if our spouse is being defensive, it is because they are feeling attacked and think they need to protect (and defend) themselves. Calling it out and saying “You’re being defensive” won’t help; it’ll actually cause more defense. However, our honesty about how their defensiveness makes us feel allows them the opportunity to own their defensive behavior and a chance to dig deeper into their own hearts to explore where the pain of their defensiveness may be coming from. If defensiveness is damagine your relationship, carefully and gently navigating to the heart of that response will set the stage for True Intimacy!