Tuesday, June 4, 2013

This Relationship Corner: Ditch the Defensiveness

There's a line from the new Star Trek movie that I particularly enjoyed. As Spock and Kirk are arguing, and Spock tells Kirk, "Your defensiveness indicates that you agree with me." It doesn't matter what century we're in, we often resort to defensiveness when we can't, or won't, see that we're wrong. It's a common human failing, one that will destroy your relationships. Even your potential for relationships.

I'm a huge fan of the website Cracked, and when they aren't pontificating on the possibilities of a zombie apocalypse, or the realities of creepy urban legends, they will sometimes feature columns full of relationship advice. A recent column focused on five turn-offs found in male dating profiles and why those personality traits are relationship repellent.  If you want a textbook case of defensiveness, read the article's comments section. Man after man complained that the writer should also talk about what women do wrong and why women, not men, are the problem.

In other words, the men commenting refused to accept that their attitudes and actions were a problem. They aren't the problem, it's everyone else who's the problem.

Defensiveness is one of the great destroyers of relationships. While my above example features many defensive men, both men and women can destroy their relationships with defensiveness. I've mentioned before how defensiveness is one of the four relationship killers in conflict, and I'd like to talk more about the specific harms that come from being defensive, and what we can do to stop it.

What is defensiveness exactly? Defensiveness is when you feel attacked during a discussion with your partner, and stop listening to what they have to say. Instead, you start thinking about how to attack them back, and respond to any kind of concern or criticism by slinging criticism right back at them. You refuse to consider, for even a moment, that you aren't perfect, or you know you are wrong but want to attack the other person to hide your own flaws. Whatever the reason, you fight fire with fire and wind up burning the entire relationship down.

If your first response to criticism is to go into attack mode, that's a problem. When someone criticizes you, rather than taking offense, first take a moment to figure out if they are right. If I promise to take out the trash, and my wife complains that I didn't do it, I might be tempted to point out all the things she's failed to do. Instead, though, I need to realize that she's right. I said I'd do it and I didn't. I need to accept that fact and not get defensive. Instead, I accept the criticism, take out the trash, and remember to do it when I say I will.

Yes, that's a small thing, but defensiveness loves to make mountains out of molehills. it can turn any slight disagreement into a knock-down, drag-out fight. Whether it's a small matter of socks being left on the floor or much bigger issues regarding money, child-rearing, or where you were until three in the morning. No matter what situation you're in, being defensive is always guaranteed to make things worse.

Defensiveness gives us the illusion that we're perfect, that everyone else in the world is wrong. It can make us feel that we are justified in defending ourselves from the sting of criticism.  It's a great tool for avoiding introspection and self-improvement. Sometimes we don't like what we find when we dig deep within ourselves. We catch a glimpse of our true problem, namely us, and quickly cover it up and try to find other reasons things aren't working out. Defensiveness and denial are a great tag-team.

I've written before about people with a history of bad relationships. One of the reasons people can't, or won't break free of the destructive pattern is defensiveness. It's hard to admit that you are the reason your relationships fail. (Or that you're the reason people don't want anything to do with you in the first place.) Confronting the fact that you are the problem is painful, and overcoming those issues takes time. It means setting your ego aside and swallowing your pride. When that becomes too difficult for people, getting defensive is much, much easier. Yes, they still have the same relationship problems, but at least they can blame other people.

It's even worse in a relationship, because defensiveness prevents you from growing closer as a couple. As I've written before, conflict is good for a relationship. However, for conflict to be helpful, you have to let it run its course. Defensiveness prevents that from happening, because it won't let you reach the stage in the conflict when you admit fault, fix the problem, and get closer. Instead, it pulls the two of you farther and farther apart until every discussion becomes a defensive shouting match.

Right now, reading this article, you are probably feeling a little defensive. You'll want to tell me that you're right about everyone else's problems. After all, they aren't perfect, they make mistakes, what's wrong with pointing them out? What's wrong with defending yourself in an argument? You're not wrong when you point out all the ways your partner screws up. Why should you have to change when everyone else is staying the same?

To borrow from Gandhi, be the change you want to see in others. In other words, if you want others to be better people around you, start by being a better person first. If you have problems, fix them before you start criticizing others about their issues. This is not new information; two thousand years ago, Jesus famously taught to take the plank from your own eye before criticizing the speck in another's.

In a relationship, a willingness to fix your own issues makes your criticisms more palatable. If my wife has a problem with my procrastination, and I have a problem with hers, the solution is not dueling accusations. Instead, I should first admit that I know I have a problem and resolve to work on it. Then I actually do what I promised to do. Only then, after I concede my faults in this area, should I bring up her issues. Because I show that I'm not attacking her, but rather I admit that I'm in the same boat, it doesn't become a fight.

But what happens if she gets defensive with me? It's possible, but that's the beauty of my approach. If I am not defensive, her defensiveness isn't sustainable. When she accuses me of procrastination, I'll admit that she's absolutely right. I am a procrastinator. I'm willing to take that hit, because I can then show that I'm not attacking her, I'm just pointing out an issue that we both need to deal with. And admitting you own faults insures that you can share your concerns with your partner without defensiveness or self-righteousness.

The same strategy also works for those of you with a history of bad relationships, or a history of being rejected. First, look at yourself. be willing to fix your issues, becoming a better version of yourself who is more appealing to healthy people. Stop blaming everyone else, because as I've said before, you are the common denominator in your relationships. Deal with yourself first.

Yes, you will still encounter people with huge issues of their own, but the other healthy people, the people worth dating, will also be drawn to you. It will be a hard pill to swallow that the problem wasn't everyone else, but rather your attraction to unhealthy people or your self-sabotaging habits. The upside is that ditching the defensiveness will result in better relationships and a happier life.

It's a hard thing to admit that a lot of your problems, in relationships or in life, are really your own darn fault. I struggle with it, and I've had my share of defensive moments and will continue to be defensive from time to time. (And my wife will bust me for it by quoting Spock to me.) So I'm right there with you, and I promise you, when you let go of the defensiveness, things will get better. It's only logical.

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