Everyone makes mistakes – that’s a given. So, partners in long-term relationships will at some point upset each other. They will overspend, fail to help with chores, or lash out in a moment of frustration. They might even have an ongoing problem, such as difficulty managing anger. Unfortunately, all too often, people shift responsibility, blaming their partner, others, or the world at large – hoping to avoid any blame themselves. These responses can sound something like, “You are so sensitive.” Or, “You are always yelling at me for something.”
For many people, this kind of defensive reaction is a carry-over from childhood. It’s common for young children to avoid taking responsibility. I can’t count the number of times I heard, “It’s not my fault,” from my own children when they broke the rules (or broke a window). I know why my children answered this way. Of course, they were trying to avoid punishment, but it was more than that – they were defending against me being angry with them and their fear of losing my love. They failed to realize that my love was bigger than any particular problem, and that their taking responsibility would allow us to work things through together. This is a common reaction for children, and it’s up to their parents to encourage a different response. Too often, though, this kind of defensive posture doesn’t get corrected in childhood and it continues to show up in adult relationships – with problematic results.
Defensive reactions only serve to increase distance and conflict in relationships, so it’s important to learn how to handle conflict differently. Instead of being or remaining defensive, you can use your mistakes or poorly thought-out actions as opportunities to strengthen your relationship. This means approaching them proactively:
Initiate conversation: When you know you have done something you wish you hadn’t, don’t wait for your partner to come to you. Approach them about the issue. This includes when you have done something that your partner doesn’t know about yet, but would be upset by if or when they find out. Waiting only increases the problem.
Listen: When people are defensive, they usually don’t really listen to what their partner is telling them. So, letting go of defensiveness means being more open to your partner’s message, really hearing the thoughts and feelings that they are trying to communicate.
Take responsibility: Be clear about what you did wrong, what you see the effects are on your partner, and how it all affects you. Hopefully, part of what you feel and say is that you are distressed that you hurt, betrayed, or upset your partner.
Accept consequences: Being proactive won’t undo your actions. So your partner may be upset or even trust you less based on what you did. However, they will hopefully also take to heart that you are trying to be honest and work with them.
Make amends: I’m not talking about bringing a bouquet of “please-let-it-go” flowers. Rather, do what you can to fix any damage you may have caused. For instance, this might mean showing outward support for your partner’s interest in painting that you previously dismissed; or taking an anger management class if you have an ongoing problem with your anger.
When you feel deeply connected to your partner, you’re vulnerable to feeling hurt. So it’s natural that you’ll will feel the need to defend yourself sometimes. But a pattern of being defensive with your partner will just build distance between you. Instead, lower your protective walls and invite your partner to be close to you.
Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.