Me: “You never take the garbage out!”
Husband: “That’s not true.”
Me: “You’re not listening to me!”
Husband: “Yes I am.”
Me: “Why don’t you ever cook dinner for me?”
Husband: “I do.”
These kinds of maddening little conversations happen all the time. It drives me crazy, partly because he’s right. His responses are technically accurate. It doesn’t matter that he’s cooked me dinner twice in the last year, it’s still a technically true response. But that’s not what really drives me nuts. It’s his defensiveness. Instead of agreeing with me, he’s defending himself. I don’t want to debate about the accuracy of my statement, I want two things: I want empathy and I want something to change.
I want him to say:
“I’m sorry I didn’t take the garbage out last night. I promise I’ll do it next week.”
“Oh, you’re not feeling heard, my love. I’m so sorry. Let me stop what I’m doing and come look in your eyes and listen to everything you have to say.”
“I’m sorry you feel burdened by cooking dinner for me most nights. I really appreciate your cooking. And how about if I cook dinner once a week?”
Ahhhh. Just thinking about him saying those things makes me feel better. If he said those things, I would feel loved and cared about and understood and appreciated.
Defensiveness is such a deeply ingrained habit, for all of us. Of course we’re going to defend ourselves, it’s as natural as putting your hands up to your face when something is about to hit it. If we didn’t protect ourselves, we would get hurt.
However, in a relationship, a defensive response isn’t helpful. It leaves the other person feeling disregarded, like what they just said was unimportant, untrue, or wrong. It erodes connection, creates more distance and is a dead end to the conversation. Defensiveness is the opposite of what really helps relationships stay on track: taking responsibility for one’s own actions.
John Gottman, arguably the world’s foremost expert on marital research, reports that defensiveness is one of what he calls “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” That is, when couples have these four communication habits, the likelihood that they’ll get divorced is 96%.
I’m counting on never getting divorced (again) but I don’t like those odds, so I really want my husband to stop being defensive.
But guess what? One of the other four horsemen is criticism. And I can count on my husband’s defensiveness being in response to a criticism from me.
What if instead of saying “You never take out the garbage!” I said, “Honey, I’ve been taking the garbage out a lot lately, and we decided that that was your job. Could you maybe get back on the ball with that?” And how about if instead of “You’re not listening to me!” I said, “Hey love, when you’re on your computer when I’m telling you about my day, I feel kind of ignored. And I start to make up a story that you’d rather read the news than hear about my day.” And how about if I just came out and asked if he’d cook me dinner more often? Yeah, I think all of those would go over better.
How did we ever get the idea that it’s okay to lodge a complaint with our partner in the form of a criticism? If I had a boss, I would never say to my boss, “You never give me a raise!” That would be ridiculous. I would present my case for why I deserve one and ask for it. I would never say to my daughter, “You never clean up your toys!” That would simply be pathetic. Instead, I give her clear instructions, over and over again, about what I expect. A marriage is neither of these situations for many reasons, but what is the same is that it is actually pretty ridiculous and pathetic to level “you never” accusations at your spouse.
It’s hard. It’s hard not to criticize and it’s hard not to be defensive.
Sometimes, I tell my husband what I wish he’d said instead of his defensive-yet-true response. That seems to help a little, because occasionally I get a more empathetic response when I complain. But when I’m really on top of my game, I ask for a do-over. Do-overs are great. I catch myself being critical and then I say, “Wait! Erase that! What I meant to say was…” That doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like it to, but I’m working on it. I’m working on it because no one wants to be criticized, and I certainly don’t want to treat the man I love that way. (Plus, I know that criticism is never going to get me the response I want!) I try to remember the saying “Underneath every criticism is an unmet need.” If I can just talk in terms of what I want and need instead of being critical, we’ll both feel better. And I’m pretty sure we won’t end up divorced!