first published on KSl.COM
My marriage is struggling, and over and over one of us gets defensive and we give each other the cold shoulder for days. It is so hard to get back to love and feeling good when we feel offended, insulted or mistreated so often. Once those walls go up it’s so hard to get past them. What can we do to stop this cycle and end the constant offending and fighting?
First of all, I need to clarify that the answer in this article is for the person asking the question above, and in their relationship there is no abuse happening. The fighting is garden variety offenses and grouchy behavior where they trigger each other and get bothered on a regular basis. Obviously, if your partner is abusive, the mistreatment needs to be addressed and stopped immediately, and I encourage you to reach out for professional help.
If you and your partner get defensive all the time and often feel like the other person is the enemy, this article is for you.
People tend to get defensive when they feel mistreated, insulted, criticized, taken from or unvalued by the other person. These experiences make a person feel unsafe and threatened; in this state, a person tends to believe he or she has to defend or protect themself from the threat. But a sense of safety with one’s partner often has more to do with what he or she believes about themself than it does with how their partner treats them.
If you get defensive easily and often, you may feel unsafe in the world generally. You might have started feeling unsafe long before your partner showed up in your life. It might also be helpful to check for the following behaviors, which are signs of living in a subconscious fear state all the time, which means you might have a tendency to get defensive faster than the average person:
If you function in a fear state — always looking for slights — you cannot make your partner solely responsible for you feeling defensive. You can still bring up and discuss slights, but you should first run through the process below to make sure you are seeing the situation accurately. You should also seek out some coaching or counseling to work on your fear-based programming.
The 10-step process
When you feel slighted, insulted and/or defensive, follow these steps:
1. Own that you are feeling defensive, which means you don’t feel safe. Remember that your sense of safety with your partner may have more to do with what you believe about yourself and your life than you think. This means you must acknowledge that no one can make you feel unsafe without your participation at some level. Just be willing to own that your fears of failure and loss could be in play.
2. Ask the other person if they feel unsafe and defensive, too. Acknowledge that you understand that feeling and feel the same way. Acknowledge that this will be harder to resolve while you are both unbalanced and fear-triggered.
3. Agree that you are both safer than your feelings and your subconscious programming may believe. You both love each other and you both want this relationship to work.
4. Decide to be two people against the problem, not two people against each other. Agree to approach the problem by listening to how and why your partner feels the way they do. Commit to being willing to listen and really understand instead of trying to win.
5. Recognize your own fear trigger. Have you been fear of failure triggered — where you feel insulted or attacked by something, making you afraid you aren’t good enough? Or have you been fear of loss triggered — where you feel mistreated and/or taken from, ming you afraid you aren’t safe? Which are you struggling with right now? Knowing this will help you get balanced again.
7. Now you are ready to talk about the issue that started the defensiveness. Be willing to ask questions about what happened and how your partner feels Listen for the purpose of understanding them. Keep asking questions and listening (without sharing your thoughts) until you can tell they feel really heard and validated.
8. Ask if your partner would be willing to listen to you and give you time to explain your thoughts and feelings without interrupting you. If he or she agrees, then go to step 9. If he or she doesn’t agree, tell them you respect that and maybe the two of you can continue the conversation later when they feel more able to show up for you.
9. Carefully share your thoughts and feelings. Avoid "you" statements because they can feel like an attack. Use "I" statements and talk only about your perspective, your feelings, your triggers and your observations. Also, make sure you’re focusing solely on future behavior and don’t waste time talking about the past, which your partner cannot fix or change. Ask if, moving forward, they would be willing to do this or that differently.
10. Repeat. At this point, your partner might have more to say. Go back through steps 7-9 again. Keep doing this until you can reach an agreement or compromise.
Remember, your spouse isn’t ever a jerk, selfish, mean, or careless; he or she is more likely scared, and it is their fears that drive jerky, selfish, mean or careless behavior. We behave badly when we are worried about protecting ourselves. Reminding yourself that you are safe, is critical to the process of working through a fight maturely.
These 10 steps show you how to have a mutually validating conversation without letting fear triggers make you both defensive. This may take some practice to master, but you will be amazed at the clarity it gives you both, when you recognize the fears and why you are feeling defensive.
If you have felt defensive and unsafe with your partner for a long time, you may need some professional help to work through forgiveness and making some big changes in behavior. I recommend getting professional help sooner than later. Someone who knows how to help relationships heal can make the process much faster.
You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.