We all get defensive at times. I know I do when I’m having a really bad day and feel like I’m not being heard or misunderstood. And let’s face it, we are not being heard or understood by others all the time. It’s part of being alive.
Defensiveness is one of the most destructive dynamics among couples. One, or maybe both at the same time feel tired, fragile or insecure, and when the other one has something unsupportive to say, the walls go up.
In an attempt to protect our fragile state of mind we lock the other person out, and if the other person isn’t fully on their toes, a confrontation is inevitable.
The essence of every fight is when both parties feel they have to arm themselves against an attack from outside. That is when we put on the armor and grab our mental weapons and enter the path of war. We cannot hold back the onslaught of overwhelming emotions that arise in us – anger, hurt, feeling attacked – and point the finger back at the offender in an attempt to draw attention to the imperfections of the other person.
When such strong feelings arise, it’s very difficult to intercept the automatic unraveling of a beginning fight.
The most malicious assault we are exposed to at this very moment is the attack from within the self. A part of us feels doubtful or guilty about some imperfection we possess.
Maybe we feel we didn’t do everything we could to prevent the argument. Maybe we believe already that we are inadequate about something that we are confronted with. There are a million scenarios what we can feel bad about.
The more vulnerable parts of us are assaulted from two sides: our own self-blaming voices, as well as by an outside attacker. We have no choice but to defend ourselves against the overwhelming force of criticism.
There is one, and only one thing we can do to prevent the spiral of destruction: to side with ourselves in a compassionate way.
Start to take note on what dynamic arises with certain arguments. Usually it’s a variation of the same argument, over and over. We are not very creative that way.
Let’s say there is a fight between two partners about cleaning up the apartment. That’s a common theme. One doesn’t care that much if the kitchen isn’t spick and span, the other one does. One keeps pointing out that is has to be cleaned, the other one has different priorities. There is some bickering and then comes the inevitable “you always do that.”
At some point the argument isn’t about cleaning any more. It’s about feeling left alone, overburdened, unheard or criticized by the other.
There is always a back story to this. Maybe the one who cleans is convinced that s/he takes care of most of the household chores anyway. There may be an old feeling that this is an ongoing dynamic: maybe s/he had to take care of the actual or emotional needs of a parent or sibling, and rarely got the chance to just go and play.
There might be a feeling of inevitability; “I am stuck in this role. I’ll always end up taking care of everybody else and I am invisible.”
The compassionate thing to do when all hell brakes lose about the cleaning is to understand where your own frustration is coming from.
The stronger side of your internal thinking is the one who can say to yourself: “Of course I get frustrated because I feel overburdened and not taken care of – and that has been going on long before I even got married.”
The part can then feel reassured about knowing where the anger is really coming from can attend to the fragile parts of the self: the part that got irritated about your husband leaving bread crumbs on the sofa, and started to throw a fit that developed into a fight.
We must learn to attend to our own emotional needs first. When the self-blame subsides, we can learn to deal with the confrontations that come from the outside. Only when we can be OK with ourselves can we hear another person’s criticism, and then either concede that we are at fault or refuse responsibility.
As long as we feel inadequate about our own motivations, there will be no peace. Only a cease fire.
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Last reviewed: 3 Apr 2012