It is natural to try to defend yourself if you feel that you are being attacked. In your intimate relationship even though you may trust your spouse, there are times when you may feel that you are under attack. This can happen when you feel that you are being criticized or judged negatively.
Some relationships can get to such a place of mistrust and tension that both people may find that they are in a perpetual state of being on guard. Of course this is extremely stressful and emotionally damaging for both people involved.
How Defensiveness Creeps Into Your Relationship
How do couples get to such a painful place in their relationship? Most couples who are newly in love experience an incredible emotional high. Think back to when you were first in love, quite likely you were convinced that you had found an angel who was fun, charming, considerate and the lists goes on. If you or your spouse experienced a disagreement, it is likely that you were highly motivated to make things right and get your relationship back on track. At that time, the desire to work to resolve issues was not only fueled by the positive feelings of love but also by the instinctual need to win the prize of your spouse’s affection.
However as time passes and the challenges of life unfold, couples may respond to each other with a protective caution that can sometimes turn into an unyielding barrier. This blocks emotional intimacy in the relationship.
If either you or your spouse have been hurt in past relationships, it can adversely affect how you function in your current relationship. Generally you learn from your past experiences how to handle similar experiences in the present. For example if in the past you were in a relationship with a possessive partner, you are likely to be sensitive to any indication that your current partner is trying to keep track of your activities. If your spouse asks, “Who are you meeting for lunch today?” You may find yourself reacting defensively; you may not even realize that your tone is defensive. Your spouse may sincerely be asking just to be cordial.
Building on this example, suppose your spouse experienced infidelity in a previous relationship, your defensiveness is now being viewed with suspicion. Your spouse then reacts in an accusatory tone, very soon both of you are angry. You can see how a simple comment may escalate into a situation where both people have very different interpretations of what happened. If this and similar scenarios play out again and again, you both learn to keep your defensive barriers at the ready.
How To Overcome Defensiveness
In order to reduce the rush to defensiveness it helps to be aware of your triggers. You can begin to understand your triggers by reflecting on past experiences and relationships that you have had. Sometimes the relationship may be as early as relationships in childhood, such as relationships with your parents or other significant caregivers. Think especially of any difficult, or traumatic situations that you had. Those experiences or relationships have taught you how to instinctively react to similar situations.
Identifying the situations that may trigger you gives you an opportunity to be proactive. It is helpful to share your awareness of these triggers with your spouse and vice versa so both of you understand what is upsetting to each of you.
When you are faced with those triggering situations, make a conscious effort to pause before responding to your spouse. During the pause, count to five as you breathe in and out then choose your response.
It takes practice to bring about changes, especially when your automatic reaction is to defend yourself. It is therefore inevitable that there will be some mistakes made. Accept responsibility when you have fallen back into the pattern of defensiveness, apologize and try again.
The inclination to react defensively when you are hurt is natural. With awareness and with conscious effort to change your response, you can prevent defensiveness from becoming a permanent barrier in your relationship.