They say that sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Some people adhere to this rhetoric in their relationships by enlisting the help of the third Horseman of the Apocalypse- Defensiveness.
Defensiveness is simply defined as the act of protecting oneself from a perceived attack. What’s so wrong with that? It’s a very natural thing to do after all.
In fact, we humans have survived for so long because we are really good at detecting threats. The primal parts of our brain our lightning-quick and act without hesitation to keep us safe. They allow us to act without thinking. Great for when you’re walking across the street and need to leap out of the way of an oncoming vehicle. Not so great in relationships.
These parts of our brain are very simple. Simple and efficient. Unfortunately, they are also kinda dumb. They are so good at what they do- detecting threats- that they fire even when the threat doesn’t really exist. They don’t have the time or the resources to investigate or analyze. That’s not their job.
Imagine if that car were careening toward you and you began thinking, “I wonder what the velocity of that car is. If I also knew its mass, I could then calculate the force by which it’ll hit me.” *splat*
In relationships, this impulse to save ourselves often comes out in defensiveness. When weperceive that our partner is attacking us, we defend in one of several ways: righteous indignation, launching a counterattack, or playing the victim (also referred to as whining).
My wife will likely tell you that I am well-versed in all three tactics. Some might say I’m an expert.
The other day, my wife discovered that I had put my 3 year old’s shorts into my 5 year old’s dresser. She informed me saying, “Hon, you put these shorts in the wrong drawer.” Simple, elegant, not attacking at all.
Well, my primal brain interpreted this as an attack, and I shot back, “You’re welcome for washing, folding, and putting away our daughter’s clothes.”
If you couldn’t tell, this was righteous indignation. Another time, I might have responded with, “Fine. Next time, you can do the laundry. I only did it because our daughter’s had no clean clothes to wear…” (counterattack)
Or, “You always find something to complain about. I try so hard to help you, and all you do is point out my mistakes.” (whining)
It’s likely that you and your partner have exhibited each of these before. Defensiveness is the most common of the Four Horsemen. It’s appearance alone does not forebode demise in a relationship, but it can be problematic if one partner becomes defensive every time an issue is raised.
Defensiveness comes naturally to us. We are simply trying to protect ourselves from harm. When defensiveness becomes a habit, however, it tells our partner that we don’t feel safe with them- that we always have to have our guard up.
Obviously, this isn’t helpful when trying to discuss and resolve issues. The antidote to defensiveness is simple. It involves taking responsibility for the issue (even if it’s only a teensy bit).
In the earlier example, I could have simply said, “I’m sorry. I’ll pay more attention to the size next time.” That likely would have been the end of it. It was my fault the pants were in the wrong drawer after all.
It’s all about taking responsibility. No, not everything is your fault. It’s not your partner’s fault either.
Admit fault. Take responsibility. Have a fruitful conversation.
I’ll continue to work on not letting defensiveness get the best of me. He and I are very close, you see. Which of the four horsemen are you bff’s with? Next week, we’ll talk about stonewalling.