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Being defensive in your relationship is natural, but it can be toxic

So many arguments seem to start at the end of a long, hard day. Can you relate to what I hear so often in my office?

A couple is sitting around the dinner table, and the husband is telling an involved story about work. Then the wife interrupts.

Wife: “It is unbelievable how you never ask me about my day. Since you’ve been home, all we’ve talked about is you. Don’t you see anything wrong with this picture?”

Husband: “You didn’t ask me about my day, either, I just wanted to share with you. You think you’re perfect, but you’re not. You can’t even balance the checkbook.”

Do you see what is happening? The husband is getting defensive. He’s trying to protect himself from his wife’s attack. He has even counter-attacked by bringing up the checkbook.

Husband: “Maybe I forgot to ask you about your day, but I do a very good job of making a living and keeping up with our finances. I also gave our son a bath, and I took him to the dentist the other day. Is that not enough? Why don’t you appreciate me?”

People get defensive in one of two ways: They act like innocent victims or they counter-attack. The counter attack is the classic definition of defensiveness; according to Webster’s:  resisting or being ready to resist an attack.

To stop the negative spiral that can damage even the best relationships, try these suggestions:

  1. Take responsibility for the problem.
  2. Accept feedback even if a partner’s tone sounds critical.
  3. Listen to the complaint and remain open-minded. Say, for example, “Aha! Good point. I didn’t notice that I didn’t ask about your day.”
  4. Ask questions. You might say, for example, “What do you mean? What are your concerns?”
  5. Or, “Maybe you are right. I’m so stressed by work right now that I forgot to check on you.”

I know it is hard not to react defensively, especially when you are feeling attacked by a person who is very important to you. It’s even harder when that person is your partner, and he or she keeps pointing out flaws and acts more like an adversary than a friend. During these arguments, you’re likely to react physically as well as emotionally. Maybe your heart rate increases, you might start sweating, perhaps you’d rather be anywhere but having this fight or talking about your relationship.

Nevertheless, the pattern of criticizing, then reacting defensively, is toxic.

Breaking this bad habit or being defensive, and learning to take responsibility for your words and actions, may be the most important skill you can bring to any relationship.

Next month: We’ll see what happens when you can’t get out of the “criticize and defend” rut.

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