Most intimate relationships don’t start out that way. When people are newly in love, they do everything they can to avoid finding fault with one another. If one partner does or says something that upsets the other, they both try to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible. Both partner’s upsets are listened to with compassion and distresses are neutralized by loving support.
As intimate relationships mature, some of that automatic resiliency diminishes. Consequently, the partners cannot guarantee anymore that they will always respond to a challenge with the same equanimity they had been able to in the past. A seemingly once-innocent remark can now trigger recollections of past relationship traumas.
Even the couple’s own history together will have elicited personality conflicts that may have not been evident in the early stages of the relationship. As they get to know each other better, they allow previously suppressed thoughts and feelings to emerge, requiring the couple to adjust to the new dimensions of the relationship.
If the partners are not skilled at rebuilding their relationship when these demands for transformation occur, they can feel threatened by the new challenges and see them as critical evaluations. It is easy from there to develop defensive reactions that activate the other’s knee-jerk counter-attack.
People who care deeply for one another are the most susceptible to falling into this abyss. Because of their mutual attachments to their relationship’s survival, they cannot help but be significantly influenced by each other. Their facial expressions, body language, and tones of voice become mirrors that reflect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to the other partner. If those mirrors reveal increasing discontent, the partner who is hurt by those reflections will respond in a defensive way.
There are many ways to prevent those upsetting reflections from gaining steam. The most successful game plan is to focus on the defense maneuvers rather than the triggers that may have activated them. Perceived challenges may not have been intentional threats, but the partner on the other end could have heard them as more critical than they were meant. Defenses are easier to identify and to change. Once both partners recognize how they characteristically defend any perceived attack, they can better evaluate what caused their defensive reactions and change those responses.
There are many defensive responses, some unique to each individual couple. But, six of them are the most familiar to most people. The following examples will illustrate how harmful they can be to intimate partners.
The Six Most Common Defensive Behaviors
1) Reversing Blame
People who defend this way want to get the heat off of them and on to the other partner. The easiest way to do that is to remind the other partner when he or she did the same thing at another time.
“You were a real jerk last night at the party. Everyone was embarrassed when you thought that telling the hostess that she should dump her husband was funny. I felt like you were making it look like you were tired of me, or something.”
“Oh, right. You’re playing the never-do-anything-wrong person again, pretending innocence. You get drunk at every party we go to. The guys line up to wait for you to start falling all over them, just like last week. What the hell were you doing?”
2) Expecting Forgiveness by “Legitimate” Excuses
The goal of this defensive maneuver is to have ready and convincing excuses for the behavior being questioned. There were “unforeseen or “unmanageable events” that just couldn’t be controlled. The person attacked presents him or herself as innocent of any wrongdoing because of the difficulty of the situation. There were extraneous circumstances, so there should not be any negative reaction.
“I texted you five times to pick me up at the airport. I had to wait an hour for you to get there. You are always late no matter how much I stressed that I needed you to be on time today. What was so important that you couldn’t get back to me?”
“I’m so sorry. I forgot to charge my phone because I was helping your mother with her upsetting doctor appointment, and then I was on my way before I realized it. I knew you wouldn’t want me to be any later than I always was, so I just took a chance. And then there was an accident on the freeway. I was so frustrated but I didn’t have any way of reaching you. You’re being so unreasonable to be mad at me. I did everything I could to be on time and it wasn’t my fault.”
This maneuver requires that you play the part of an attorney-like prosecutor but is very effective as a defense. When one partner feels attacked, he or she actively and stridently challenges that the event in question never happened, is being distorted, or is coming from unreasonable bias. The goal is to get the presumed attacker to doubt him or herself.
“You promised me that you would be supportive when I decided to go back to work. You said you would help with shopping and cooking. You’ve managed to avoid doing anything you promised. I don’t even believe you anymore.”
“First of all, I never made all of those stupid promises. I said I would help you out if I had the time, remember? You are exaggerating like crazy to make me feel like the bad guy. Just like a woman, you remember only what’s convenient to win the argument. Go ahead and pretend it happened your way. It won’t work. You’re really off the mark.”
4) Exaggerating Your Partner’s Point
This one is tricky, but extremely effective when used accurately. The presumed attack is hurtful to a point. Instead of defending, the assaulted partner makes the accusation much more intense and meaner than intended, exaggerating it beyond what the accuser intended. The goal is to get the adversary to begin protecting you from the initial assault.
“You’ve promised to save money for months. We can’t even pay our bills. What the hell is up with this credit card? I’ve gone through it and there isn’t anything on this that we really need. You’re supposed to talk to me before you spend extra money. I’m really pissed.”
“Why don’t you just say that I’m not worth it? Just be truthful. You hate to spend money on me because you don’t think I deserve it. You never appreciate the things on there that I buy for you. Every time I buy something for myself, I worry that you’re going to be mad. Not only are you angry at me, but you wipe my self-esteem off the face of the earth by your mean accusations. I might as well just give up and let you run everything yourself. Maybe that would make you stop yelling at me.”
5) Finding an Exception to the Situation
This defensive maneuver works extremely well if the accuser talks in generalities. When words like “always,” “never,” and “ever,” are used, it is quite easy to find one exception to the accusation that will invalidate the wipe-out evaluation.
“You keep saying you’re going to do something special for me on a weekend, but you never come through. I’ve been waiting forever for any sign that I can trust your promises, but I’m getting tired of believing in someone who obviously offers when he wants something from me but has no intention of following through once he gets it. Just admit it; you’re never going to put me first, no matter how much it hurts me.”
“How can you say that? I took you to your girlfriend’s party last month even when I didn’t want to go. We went to the movies a couple of weeks ago, remember? I even agreed to go to your brother’s bachelor party even though I can’t stand the guy. You only pay attention to what you don’t get. Why don’t you try thinking about what I do for you instead?”
The most devastating and destructive defensive maneuver is intimidation. One partner finds fault or challenges the other and is met with escalated anger on the part of the other, clearly meant to over-rule by force, invalidation, and derision.
Threatening an emotional demise has no positive outcome and will eventually destroy any hope of continued intimacy. People who use emotional force create the fight-flight-freeze response in their victims. The part of the brain that seeks safety compels the person attacked to activate his or her defenses, run away, or play dead.
“You’re never happy with me. No matter what I do, you have a bitchy, critical response. I don’t even want to talk to you anymore. You constantly complain that you want closeness, but you’re covered in barbed wire and porcupine quills. Maybe if you softened up, I’d be interested, but I’m not going to open up if you keep doing what you’re doing.”
“You have got to be the most self-centered, obnoxious, self-serving person on the planet. All I want is a little caring from a man with balls. You’re wimpy and conflict-averse, and it’s easy to blame me, right? You wanted a strong woman who knows her mind. Well, you got one. And now I’m too mean and you’re so victimized. Take some goddamn responsibility for a change.”
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Defensiveness in any form has only one purpose: to invalidate, suppress, or diminish the other partner’s current thoughts, feelings, or actions. It is a dangerous and hurtful game that damages self-worth and the ability to heal from negative encounters. It can turn a mutually loving relationship from one of safety and comfort into a battle for survival.
Fortunately, just stopping using a defensive response to a presumed attack can turn the tide. Once the cycle of reciprocal attack and defend ends, both partners can listen more deeply to whatever is triggering the other’s distress and keep it where it begins.