4 Minutes 4 Marriage – Defensiveness

Today’s topic is defensiveness, or taking on the attitude of innocent victim. If you’ve breezed through the last two weeks finding no criticism or contempt in your relationship, great! But defensiveness is harder to avoid. What is our reflex when we are criticized, attacked, or even confronted with a simple complaint? I know I have a natural tendency to defend myself. Either I entertain thoughts about “poor me” or ideas of righteous indignation.

Picture your frustrated (worried?) spouse who meets you at the door and snaps, “You should have called to let me know you were going to be so late.”

What’s your most likely tactic?

1. (Making excuses) “The phone is always busy here; I wouldn’t have gotten through anyway.” Variations include, “Work was so intense I didn’t get a spare minute.”

2. (Tit for tat) “You didn’t call me when you were late yesterday.” This is a grownup version of the playground retort, “I’m rubber and you’re glue; what bounces off me sticks to you.”

3. (Counterattack) “Couldn’t you wait until I at least get my coat off? What ever happened to ‘Welcome home?’”

4. (Non-defensive) “You’re right; I’m sorry if I worried you.”

(If you answered number 4 you already are adept at non-defensive listening and speaking.)

The problem with defensiveness is it exacerbates negativity. Rather than acknowledging a problem so that it can be worked out and improve the marriage, it derails any chance for a positive exchange. It stops constructive communication and leaves trouble unresolved. We want so badly to prove we are right that we sacrifice our own and our spouses’ happiness.

In relationships we tend to catch each other’s emotions. If someone walks in the house excited and happy, bursting with good news, chances are pretty good the whole family will benefit. But if someone comes home angry, it won’t be long before everyone is upset. Unfortunately, it seems negative emotions are dominant and positive are recessive. One bad mood can ruin the evening for everyone else.

It takes real self control not to become caught up in our spouse’s anger. My husband is amazing at this, and I wish I would learn from him. When people are angry with him and he doesn’t think he deserves it, he usually shrugs and figures they are having a bad day. When people are angry with me, I’m angry right back: “How dare they feel that way?” Obviously, my husband’s attitude is much healthier and serves to de-escalate rather than intensify situations.

If we get too used to believing we are innocent victims, taking on the “poor me” attitude, we cheat ourselves out of opportunities to improve our relationships. It’s much easier to retaliate or to pour out our woes to friends or family about how difficult our spouses are, than to take a deep breath, truly listen to our spouses’ perspectives, and admit we might be wrong.

After all, we only can change ourselves. We need to acknowledge our weaknesses and faults and try to improve our relationships by improving ourselves. That’s the stuff of heroes. Yes, our spouses have faults, but we aren’t perfect. We are never completely right, nor are they completely wrong. Marriage is worth admitting our mistakes and doing something about them. It might take a while for our spouses to notice, but they will.

Don’t give up. Dr. Gottman maintains that five positive interactions counter one negative one. That might feel something like “seven times seven,” but the benefits of a strong marriage reach from generation to generation. If in the heat of a disagreement we can’t step back for our spouses, let’s do it for our children’s sake.

Alternatives for enhancement: Turn your attention from yourself and focus on your spouse.

  1. Non-defensive listening:
  • Is your marriage cup half empty or half full? Practice dwelling on your partner’s good qualities, rather than their weaknesses, especially when you feel upset.
  • When your spouse is angry, don’t take his or her words personally. Instead, hear the anger as an effort at turning up the volume in order to be heard.
  • Listen to the emotions behind the words. Look to facial expressions for clues. Is my beloved angry, frustrated, afraid? Have I done something to cause this? What can I do to make him or her feel more secure?
  • Empathize. How would you feel if you were your spouse?
  1. Non defensive speaking:
  • Remember the simple, specific complaint, with the focus on your feelings rather than on blame. “I felt X when you Y. I’d rather you Z.” Complaints are much less aggressive than either criticism or contempt.
  • Stop an angry retort! This stops the negativity cycle before it spins out of control. Tone of voice can be very intimidating. Keep yours calm.
  • Let your answer show that you have heard the complaint, or that you understand the emotions that your actions caused. Apologize.
  •  Compliment. Fill that half empty/half full marriage cup to overflowing.


Bible verse to ponder: Wives be submissive to your husbands, {…} Husbands love your wives….

Ladies, did that verse make you feel defensive? (I won’t ask the gentlemen how it made them feel.) This paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:1,7 is a mine field. But surely wives are not excluded from the call to love their husbands. So, neither are husbands excluded from the call to be submissive to their wives. Let’s all submit to our spouses when they are upset with us. Let’s reject the victim role and focus on our spouses’ feelings and perspective instead of our own.

Peter goes on to say: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8,9 RSV emphasis mine)

Thank you investing four (or five?) minutes in your relationship!

Betty Arrigotti


Gottman, John M. & Silver, Nan (1995). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: and How You Can Make Yours Last. Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

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