The more I work with couples and learn about them, the harder it gets for me to agree with the saying, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” To be sure, some experts believe that only 10% of our communication is done verbally, whereas 90% is through nonverbal ways such as the body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Without undermining the power of nonverbal communication, I want to call your attention to the what part of communication. Oftentimes, when a couple is arguing, words alone can cut and hurt each other. If such a negative pattern of communication is allowed to fester, it may soon chip away the marriage and threaten to destroy the very foundation of the relationship.
Marriage expert John Gottman has analyzed numerous interactions between thousands of couples and never dismisses the content, that is, what is being said. Notably, he talks about the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse as being the corrosive forces of marriage. In my previous post, I wrote about the first Horseman, criticism. Today, we’ll look at one Horseman that usually appears as a direct response to criticism.
Horseman Two: Defensiveness
You’re feeling attacked by your partner. You hear unfair judgments about your personality, and how you will never change. What do you say?
- Why are you always attacking me? That’s so unfair!
- What about the time you forgot to do the laundry? You didn’t hear me complain, did you?
- I have to cook, watch the kids, and work at the same time. Of course I’m going to forget to pick out your mom’s present! You just don’t understand how hard it’s been for me.
These are typical responses indicating Defensiveness: playing the innocent victim (statement A), counterattack (B), and righteous indignation (C).
While it may seem justifiable to defend yourself when you feel attacked, in reality defensiveness escalates the negativity that has already set in with criticism. It does nothing to ease the tension, but instead creates distance between you and your partner in the moment when constructive communication should occur. You are also not likely to get a softened response from your partner.
The alternative to a defensive response may not be easy for you, but it can be effective in softening your partner’s stance. Try and see if there’s even a tiny part of what your partner has just said that you can take responsibility for. Then explain your difficulty, and if possible ask your partner for support. For example:
You’re always late in picking up Jimmy from school! Do you know how embarrassed I am every time his teacher calls me about this?
It’s true I’ve been late a couple of times this month (taking responsibility). I know getting those phone calls upsets you (acknowledging consequences). I’m just having such a hard time at work recently I can’t seem to keep everything under control (explaining difficulty). Can we talk about how we can make this work (inviting collaboration)?
Notice that you neither apologizing for your partner’s feeling embarrassed nor taking the blame for it; you’re simply acknowledging that he or she dreads getting the phone call. Acknowledging your partner’s feelings often has the powerful effect on making your partner feel heard and understood, which then sets the stage for effective problem solving.
I want to mention one caveat in the above technique. In relationships where one partner is abusive toward the other, I will not encourage meeting the partner’s putdowns with this approach because this may enable the partner to continue his or her abusive behavior. In such a relationship, the priority should be in addressing the safety of the victim and power imbalance; the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse are but symptoms of the decay in the relationship, not causes of it.
If domestic violence and abuse are absent in your relationship, but you are nevertheless troubled by the communication problems between you and your partner, watch out for the most toxic of the Four Horsemen: contempt. I will say more about that in my next post.