It started as an honest complaint from your spouse. Thirty minutes later, with insults flung without care and voices raised, the inciting incident has been forgotten. Most of us have been in a fight that has spiraled out of control. But why? How do you stop it from happening again?
Defensive behavior is a major player in how a calm discussion devolves into an argument. When you see the word “defensive behavior”, it doesn’t have to mean anything physical. It’s simply the behavior that a person exhibits when they feel a personal threat.
When a person behaves defensively, they often lose their ability to listen and respond appropriately. It’s like hearing the worst accusations and never once doubting that is what your spouse meant. Worse, defensive behavior tends to trigger a similar response in all others who are present. If you want to know what defensive behavior is, then simply think back to the moments that made your blood boil. Did he seem like he wasn’t interested in the conversation? Shifted the blame for something to you? Touted previous experience as proof for why he was right? All signs of defensive behavior.
In a marriage relationship, there will be points when you need to confront your spouse about something. It’s necessary to keep the relationship healthy and to guard against resentment and passive-aggressiveness. But when there are only two people present in the argument, it can be hard to curb that defensive behavior. So here are four steps to fighting fair.
Step #1 – Focus on the Team
You and your husband are a team. It should never be about winning against him; instead, it should be about winning against the rest of the world. It’s about finding a solution that benefits you, as a team, the most.
In Jack R. Gibb’s “Defensive Communication,” he pairs together what he calls defensive communication climates with the corresponding supportive communication climate. By choosing to focus on a team mentality, you are setting up two out of the six supportive climates: problem-orientation and equality.
If you ever played a team sport as a child, then you already know that a team wins and loses together. A problem for one person is a problem for the whole team. When the team does win, every member wins as an equal. One person doesn’t magically win more than another.
When you choose to focus on your team in a fight, you’re also acknowledging two very important facts:
- You’re tackling a problem that negatively affects your relationship.
- You are both equal in this. You are not entitled to your way anymore than your husband is entitled to his way. The actual solution to the problem will have to come from both of you.
Step #2 – Define the Problem
If you look at any model of conflict resolution, you’ll find they have one thing in common: clearly define the problem. It makes sense. After all, you can’t find a solution unless you know what you’re trying to solve.
Unfortunately, a lot of individuals are guilty of defining the problem in ambiguous terms. How often do you hint around at your problem while hoping your husband gets what you’re really saying? I know I’m guilty of it – and I majored in this stuff! When I say something like, “I wish you weren’t playing that game so much,” what I really mean is, “I want more time with you.” If I say, “I feel like we haven’t talked lately,” what I really mean is, “I think we both need to turn off our screens.”
Women are stereotyped as not being direct about their problems, but it’s really a disease that afflicts both genders. So, before you get into the gritty and tense parts of the fight, make sure you understand what’s in his heart. Ask questions until you are sure that the problem is clearly defined.
Step #3 – Describe, Don’t Evaluate
My family was in a car accident recently. As part of the insurance process, an inspector was sent out to evaluate the damage on our car. As part of his job, this inspector described the damage done to our vehicle and then estimated the cost of repairs.
I’m using this as an example because the difference between describing and evaluating in conversations is hard for most people to understand. Evaluating also means making some kind of judgement in the situation. In the evaluation of our car, the insurance company of the at-fault driver wasn’t concerned about knowing what damage was done. They wanted to know how much it was going to cost them, which meant judging how much damage had been incurred.
When it comes to interpersonal relationships, evaluation is often done accidentally and is often not meant to be a negative thing. For example, you might think you’re just expressing hurt when you say, “It just seems like you never pay attention to me.”
To somebody who is realizes the need to be open and honest about their frustrations, this probably seems like the correct thing to do in the situation. If you read that sentence very carefully, though, you’ll realize that judgement has already been passed: “you never pay attention to me.”
Your partner is going to zero in on that ‘you’ word and feel accused. Instead of realizing your hurt (which was your goal), they’re going to interpret the message to be something like, “What I do isn’t good enough for her, apparently!” Insert defensive behavior.
When in the middle of conflict resolution, learn to describe your behavior and your own emotions without implying blame on the other person. Instead of our earlier example, say, “When you break eye contact to look at your phone, I feel like you aren’t listening to me.” This is describing the specific problem (no eye contact) in terms of how you feel in response to that problem. Because you’re keeping the focus on how you feel rather than outright saying that your spouse is ignoring you like in the earlier statement, this second statement will not trigger the same level of defensiveness as the first example.
Note: Sometimes descriptive statements will still get a defensive response if the person has already felt like he was under attack. In this case, just reiterate something like, “I didn’t say that you were ignoring me. I said that I felt that way when (blank) happened.”
Step #4 – Practice Active Listening
Just because you are attempting to fight fair doesn’t mean your spouse will do the same. Even if both people have studied conflict resolution, one of them will still slip up if he or she is having a bad moment. When you feel like you’re under personal attack, it is important to remember this fact: defensive behavior limits how much you’re actually listening to your spouse.
This is one of the reasons why defensive behavior is so contagious. It’s easy to understand why, too. After all, nobody likes being misunderstood or feeling like somebody else missed their point!
The good news is there’s a very simple way to diffuse the situation. It’s called “active listening.” Here are some highlights:
- Summarize what you’ve heard. This shows that you’ve been paying attention. It also gives your spouse a chance to correct any misunderstandings before they snowball. Use a phrase like: “What I’m hearing you say is that you’re upset because…”
- Ask for clarification on any points you’re confused about. Use a phrase like: “I don’t think I understand why blank upset you. Can you explain again?” or channel your inner child by asking “why” questions.
- Be open about anything you take personally. Give your spouse a chance to clear the air. Use a phrase like: “I’m taking what you said personally. I feel like you said it was my fault when you said blank. Is this what you meant to say?”
- Be empathetic. Understanding a point is not the same thing as conceding to it.
- Don’t interrupt your spouse when he’s speaking. This is true even if you feel like he’s incorrectly remembering something, misconstruing what you said, or isn’t being logical. Let your spouse completely finish his point before you start to talk.
She writes at www.chaoticlifeoflauren.com, where she is dedicated to helping busy Christian Moms manage life.
For more relationship advice written by Lauren, see her post on “The Simple Way to Stop Fights from Defining Your Relationship.”
Looking for weekly encouragement? Subscribe today and get your FREE copy of my latest e-book and access to my growing resource library.