Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Being Defensive Gets In The Way Of A Good Marriage

September 6, 1999

Your spouse has just unloaded on you. It feels bad. It feels like a personal attack. Yuck!

What do you do? Do you counterattack with something your upset about? Do you get defensive and dispute the criticism. Do you get angry and withdraw in a huff or brooding silence? Do you roll your eyes in contempt and impugn the motives of your mate?

All those reactions make the conversation worse. Do you think he or she is going to give up trying to make their point now that you’ve demonstrated that you don’t "get it?" More likely, your spouse will redouble their efforts to get through to you and probably in a less kindly way.

The complaint may be unwarranted, misguided and or even meant to hurt, but the mere fact that your spouse said it or believes it makes it important to understand it thoroughly. If there is validity to it, and chances are there is a core of truth to their perception, your partner is offering you an opportunity to discuss or correct the problem. One of the blessings of marriage is to have a loving critic, someone who knows you, and is willing to share constructive feedback.

One of the chief problems in clear communication under these circumstances is the all too human tendency to react and not listen. Too many times marriages become unhappy because of a history of failed attempts to communicate or solve problems. Here are some guidelines for handling criticism in a positive way.

  • Control your emotions. The number one problem to good listening under these circumstances is your emotional arousal. You don’t think as well as you can normally. It is hard to listen when you are upset or aroused. Responding with anger or hostility only makes things worse. If you are too upset to listen, ask for a break to calm down and try again later. It is important to get back to the conservation in a reasonable length of time and not "use" your arousal to avoid the issue.
  • State your positive intent on wanting to understand and resolve the difficulty. You can establish goodwill by affirming your love and concern for your partner and your willingness to try to understand their point of view.
  • Summarize in a caring manner the points being made. This is incredibly important. Leave your own side out of the discussion for the time being. If you aren’t trying to respond, this frees up your mind to be a better listener. Immediate retorts, interruptions, canned answers and even thoughtful explanations will make your partner wonder if you understood his or her point. An accurate summary shows you’ve actually heard what was being said.
  • Minimize inflammatory or provocative statements. Choose milder expressions than the ones your critic used. For example, if you hear the words, "you always," or, "you never," summarize with, "you frequently," or, "you seldom," to bypass disputing their choice of words. Ignore factual disputes and summarize the underlying meaning or theme of what he or she is trying to get across.
  • Be curious about the problem. Ask for examples. Try to find out why this issue is so important to them. Draw out his or her past experiences with similar type problems. There is usually a history behind it. This will help you connect with deeper understanding without taking the issue too personally.
  • At the appropriate time, ask for the floor. Make sure he or she has had enough time to express all their points. Validate their right to their opinion and that you appreciate the courage it took to bring it up to you. Find a way to agree with part of what was said. On the parts where you disagree, find a bridge from one of their points to your point of view. Paraphrasing accurately again their side of things will help your partner relax and be a better listener to you.
  • Trade the floor back and forth to go deeper and deeper into each side of the disagreement. Don’t try to take the floor before the other party is satisfied that their point was fully expressed and heard. A good share of problems are solved when people take time to understand each other.
  • If what is being said is true and you agree with it, apologize. Many issues won’t die because either the speaker hasn’t felt he or she has been heard or there wasn’t a sufficient apology. If the complaint involves a current behavior, commit yourself to a course of action or, at a minimum, ask for time to think over what you are willing to do about it. Some conversations won’t end until there is a resolution of the problem.
  • Try to end the conversation on a good note.

If you can follow this pattern, especially with a loved one who is unhappy with you, you will have done something hard – one of the harder things to do in life. You will also have a way of self-correcting a relationship and solving problems as you go.