All About Defensiveness:
The second of the 4 Horsemen in defensiveness. It is often brought on by the first of the horsemen, which is criticism. The criticism/defensiveness cycle is one that you will see EVERYWHERE as soon as you start to look for it. My kids do this with each other all day long where one of them criticizes, and then the other immediately gets defensive, which triggers the initiator to then get defensive back. This defensiveness cycle happens because defensiveness is a natural nervous system response, it is how our brain is trying to protect us. Controlling our defensive responses is a skill that is cultivated. Without practice and cultivation, most people don’t grow beyond what I see my kids doing, which is to end up in a defensive stalemate.
Human defensiveness is the equivalent of a porcupine putting up its quills, or a hedgehog curling up into a prickly ball to keep predators away, or a skunk spraying to ward off predators. Animals have defensive mechanisms to make sure they stay safe and protected, humans do something very similar. Humans get defensive as a way to signal “back off!” Defensiveness is one of our protective mechanisms that happens instinctually, subconsciously, and at lightning speed so that we often aren’t even aware that it is happening.
The Many Things That Bring On Defensiveness:
Defensiveness doesn’t only happen in response to criticism. It also arises when we feel insecure, treated unfairly, outnumbered, less-than, anxious, fearful, not valued, ashamed, not important, persecuted, blamed, misunderstood, and any other number of other reasons. Defensiveness can accompany any of those feelings because they are all very vulnerable states to be in, and our brain is wired to protect us from vulnerability so that we can survive. Our brain is subconsciously scanning our environment 4 times a second to see if we are safe or unsafe. If it detects something unsafe or something that might touch on a vulnerable area, our brain might shift into the protective strategy of defensiveness before we even have time to understand what we are experiencing. That is simply the way that our brain is wired to keep us alive.
Defensiveness In A Mixed-Faith Marriage:
Defensiveness comes up frequently in mixed-faith marriages in the form of defending one’s views, thoughts, or beliefs. It can look like defending the church, defending reasons for staying or leaving, defending reasons to want to attend or to not want to attend, defending what things are helpful or harmful to teach kids, defending policies, defending reasons to be angry about church policies….I could go on and on. Defensiveness runs rampant in mixed-faith marriages most likely because there are so,so, so many vulnerable things involved in a person’s unique life of faith and their spiritual journey. There are also so many extremely vulnerable feelings that are naturally part of relationships.There are so many vulnerable feelings involved in parenting. When you combine those things, faith journey and relationships and parenting, you end up with a perfect storm that will likely involve a lot of defensiveness if you don’t learn to manage it simply because there is a ton of vulnerability involved!
Defensiveness Has 2 Forms:
Defensiveness comes in two forms: it can look either like 1) a counterattack, or 2) acting like the victim. In the case of a counterattack, you are essentially pointing your finger back at the person who you feel is being critical or who is making you feel vulnerable and letting them know that they are the problem. Counterattack is a protective strategy, but the problem is that all it does is trigger the other person to then have to protect themselves through their own defensiveness or through more counterattacks of their own, and then you are caught in the defensiveness loop that will never go anywhere productive.
When defensiveness takes the form of acting like a victim, it is still sending a message of “back off,” but it is happening in a much more indirect and passive way. It is subtly sending a message of “I am not the problem, therefore you must be the problem.” Essentially this is still pointing the blame, just in a very passive way. And placing blame will feel like criticism which will naturally provoke more defensiveness. Our brains are very intelligent, and so even when the “back off” message is done subtly or with passivity from a place of being an innocent victim, it will still trigger defensiveness from the other person. When that happens, once again you will be stuck in an endless cycle of defensiveness meets defensiveness.
Why Defensiveness Is Problematic:
As humans we have two brain modes: connection and protection. When our brain is in protective mode (defensiveness), it cannot be in connecting mode at the same time. It is like an on and off light switch with no dimmer in between. You can either be in one mode or another, but not both at the same time. This is why defensiveness is a big deal and why it is one of the 4 Horsemen. Not only does it naturally trigger more and more defensiveness from our partner which will keep us in an unproductive stalemate, but if we are in protective mode we can’t also be in connecting mode. Defensiveness essentially shuts the door to connection in our relationship, and that is never a good thing!
Connecting mode engages the part of our brain that is capable of empathy, curiosity, affection, care, consideration, reason, thoughtfulness, collaboration, etc. However, when we are in protection mode, or when we are in defensiveness, those parts of our brain are not engaged in order to conserve energy for very quick fight, flight, or freeze responses instead. Our brain literally can’t engage in both protection and connection modes at the same time. So if we are defensive, we are in protection mode and the conversation is 100% NOT going to end up in a place of increased understanding,collaboration, friendship, and connection because our brain can’t protect and connect at the same time.
What To Do About Defensiveness:
So how do we get rid of defensiveness when it is a mechanism that is so instinctive and arises so quickly in many different situations? The first step is always awareness that either you or your partner are being defensive. The ability to have a “witnessing mind” that can be more aware of what is happening within us and between us instead of being hijacked by our nervous system in the moment is something that can be strengthened through practice. Mindfulness, meditation, and awareness practices are great ways to practice strengthening the witnessing mind. Once you have that increased awareness so that you can notice defensiveness when it is starting or before it is too late, there are ways to stop defensiveness in its tracks and stop the loop.
How To Not Get Defensive When You Feel Criticized: TAKE RESPONSIBILITY
When you perceive criticism, whether it is intentional or not, your nervous system will want to activate into defensive mode. When you notice that urge, the antidote to acting defensive is to take responsibility, even for just a small part of what you are being criticized for. Let’s say that your spouse says “ I really don’t like that you are teaching the kids these things when I am not around.” While that is not a direct critical statement, your brain may interpret it as “you are a problem” and you are going to want to defend your actions or why you are justified in doing what you do. You might want to go into either counterattack (ex. “you teach kids things when I am not around that I don’t agree with”) or victim mode (“you just don’t understand my perspective, this is so unfair, you don’t understand my intent is to help the kids…”)
Instead, remind yourself to take some responsibility for something, even if you can’t take responsibility for all of it. So you might say “you are right, I do talk to the kids about my beliefs when you aren’t around and I can see that impacts you” You don’t have to agree that what you are doing is inappropriate, but you are conceding to something that you are doing that impacts the other person. This is a human version of putting your quills down and instead of signaling “back off” with defensiveness, you are instead signaling “I am approachable, I am collaborative, I am listening to your concerns, I am a safe person for you to bring your concerns to.”
My favorite response to criticism, especially when it is direct criticism, is to really take inventory and admit the things that you may not do perfectly all the time. You might say “You are right, I do struggle with that sometimes.” That does wonders to flip protection mode off and connection mode on because it is a very vulnerable statement. An example of this is that my husband recently made a remark to me about how I am thin-skinned and am on the paranoid side about people rejecting me. I could feel my body go into victim defensive mode and my mind was thinking “you don’t understand what is really going on, I have had experiences that justify my being paranoid, you would be thin skinned too if you were in my shoes.” But I stopped myself and instead I said “you are right, I do struggle with that sometimes.” Because if I am honest with myself, that is true sometimes I can struggle with that in certain circumstances and so I took responsibility for that. There was no need for him to counterattack or get defensive with my response because I had laid my quills down. In fact the conversation just moved on to something deeper about my own fears and it was a very connecting conversation. It could have been a defensive conversation that would have not ended in connection.
If you are the one being defensive and there wasn’t even a criticism that necessarily provoked it, you can still take responsibility for your own feelings and actions by saying “I own that in this moment I am feeling very defensive because deep down I am feeling (insert emotion.)” That leads you right back into vulnerability, and vulnerability switches you back into connection mode.
What Do I Do If My Partner Is Being Defensive: ACCEPT INFLUENCE
You can’t control your partner, but you can always control your own reaction to any situation. The key to stopping the defensiveness cycle is to not allow yourself to get pulled into it regardless of what your partner is doing. The way you can do that is to simply accept rather than counter something that they say, even if you are only accepting one little thing. You can say things like “that’s a good point”, or “I hadn’t thought about it that way,” or “I can agree with you on that point, or “that makes a lot of sense that you would feel that way.” When you can accept a little bit of influence even in small ways, you are communicating that you are not there to get into a battle of who is right and who is wrong, and that you are there to connect and not to protect. This will help them to drop their own defensiveness.
For example, let’s say your partner is being defensive about a church policy that you disagree with, and you can feel your own defensiveness rising. Remind yourself to accept influence and say something like “you do have a good point about _______, or “your line of reasoning is very valid about _______” You don’t have to agree with their views, but you can still signal that you can accept their influence in some ways which is a very connective maneuver. You are signaling that they don’t need to continue to be defensive, because you have enough flexibility in your thinking to concede some things and to do some give and take in the moment. Their own “quills” will go down in the process and the defensive cycle will stop.
It's In Your Best Interest....
It is in your best interest to manage your own defensiveness. It is in your best interest to stop the defensive cycle through taking responsibility and accepting influence in some form because if you don’t, you will stay stuck and in stalemate. The more you can stop the cycle of defensiveness, the more you can get into the collaborative work of managing your differences and finding workable solutions. It doesn't take both of you having the same views to feel connection, it simply takes managing your own reactivity so that you can consciously switch out of protective mode and into connection mode over, and over, and over again on a daily basis!