This episode is all about defense. It is football season, what can I say? I was in a mood for a cheer. In this episode, we are talking all about defensiveness. Getting in the cycle of the blame game is a common problem for many of us. Defensiveness is another one of The 4 Horsemen that we have been talking about.
Defensiveness may often follow criticism or contribute to criticism or contempt. Sometimes defensiveness follows a complaint, which with what we have been talking about is healthy and normal. Finding ways to blame our partners instead of taking ownership of our own mistakes or misunderstandings can quickly escalate normal conflict to something unhealthy and damaging to our relationships. This is a common one.
Blame the Chicken!
In mine and Jake's relationship, we have both engaged in defensiveness. Jake will tell you that this is one of the Horsemen that he really struggles with the most. We have gotten so much better, both of us, which is nice. We bring in a lot of humor and both try to take a lot more ownership. Sometimes it is hard.
Many of us, it is hard to get in the blame-game. We aren’t trying to intentionally blame our spouse or make them feel badly, but making our own mistakes makes us feel so badly that our initial response is to blame the other person. Or blame something else. There are some things we can do about this.
Early on in our relationship, if I had a problem with something or someone and I was trying to express this to Jake, I would sometimes be met with him saying, “ Well you experienced that because you were expecting that, or you were looking for it.” It was kinda putting the blame back on me and chances are I would follow up with criticism or stonewalling (LOL). Don’t get me wrong, I played a part in what happened after that for sure!
Now, we are so much better at this. Recently, Jake and I must work on now is figuring out a routine with eating. That may seem really minor, but I am someone who could really eat out every night of the week, and partly because my mom is a really good cook and my dad is a CPA who works really long hours and when my brother and I got older and we were very busy with sports and social events and all that there was no one at home to eat dinner. Something that my mom took a lot of time to prepare and so she wouldn’t really do it, or we would have something simple or we would eat out a lot. I completely understand now why that is.
I also like eating out a lot because I am an introvert and I can enjoy the ambience and a nice atmosphere to enjoy my food. I take work with me, so it is like killing two birds with one stone. I know that that isn’t the most mindful thing to do. My dietician friends are like cringing at that.
You can imagine that this could cause a bit of a conflict in our relationship because the values of how we spend money. I can completely understand, so I have made some effort to cook more. I enjoy cooking. With Jake’s work schedule, working nights, we don’t always eat together. If we eat together, we are at different meals of the day. He is having breakfast when I am having dinner.
We don’t have kids, and I am not huge on leftovers, so cooking for one is a bit much. I can do leftovers maybe once, depending on what it is I can do a couple times but there isn’t much. We have some different values when it comes to this. This is something that can end up being a bit difficult and we try to navigate it with some better conversations.
The other day, Jake tends to make the same thing, or a variation of it for lunch that he takes to work with him every day. So, I was thinking in advance I put some chicken in the fridge to thaw for him to be able to cook it when he was ready for it. I failed to communicate this to him that I put it in the fridge to thaw for him. So, he just assumed that it was something that I was preparing for the next day. So overnight he prepared his own thing, and the next day I was like why didn’t you use that chicken, and he was like "I thought it was yours" and I had to pause and say “Oh, I guess you can’t read my mind huh.” Or something like that.
We were able to laugh about that, so I will use that chicken for something else, don’t you worry! Back in the day that may have been something I would have gotten defensive about. We have had some successes here lately, so that is great!
What is my part in the blame game?
I talk about defensiveness a lot with my clients. As you can imagine, blame can be a big part in relationships. Sometimes it really gets into this sense of fairness. So, what I see a lot with my clients is, why should I do this if they don’t do this. Or, I tried this, and it didn’t work. So, sometimes out of fairness or we have partners who engage in blame towards us, it can be difficult to be the person who takes responsibility or softens the conversations or uses a complaint instead of a criticism.
Once we receive or feel like we are receiving blame it can be easy to reciprocate that. I am often talking to my clients about validating how that felt for them. None of these things felt good, of course. Validating that, but also asking what we can do differently. If we could go back to that conversation, what could you have done differently instead. If there is blame, ask the client, like what I did with the chicken, were you communicating your needs to your partner? Were they aware of this? I think some of the solution to this is taking some of the responsibility even if it is just some role in the conflict. In my case, I took responsibility that I didn’t communicate with Jake that I had intentionally thawed out that chicken for him. That was my part.
There may be other types of conflict that someone who knew their partner needed to call someone to make a medical appointment that day and knowing that the partner may have had a really busy day at work and the partner didn’t get to it. It could be easy to blame that partner. Or when the partner gets home and ask them did you make that call and they responded in a defensive manner, like I was busy at work and forgot, you knew I was going to be why didn’t you make an appointment for me. Maybe taking some ownership that you did know that your partner was going to be busy at work.
The other part is understanding your partner's needs. That is where we can come in a practice our flexibility and think in advance about these things. How can we come alongside our partners and support them in these areas?
Be creative, rescript it!
I want us to look at some of the perpetual areas of conflict in your relationship. How have I been defensive? How has my partner been defensive? Are either of you quick to blame the other or not accept your responsibility. Go back over an old conversation where there was defensiveness, either yours or your partners, and see if you can rescript it. Take ownership of your response. Just be creative, what could I have said differently. How could I have softened this for my partner, what is a way I could have come alongside my partner. And try that next time.
Change begins with you, and even if you are not the one who struggles with defensiveness, what are the areas of conflict that you can take ownership of?
Help in the meantime:
YouTube channel BWBL playlist
Gottman Institute Blog