The Four Horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse, Part Two: Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a toxic communication pattern.

Contributors to Marital Apocalypse Series

Not all negatives are equally damaging in relationships. In his last post, Russ Schulte introduced us to the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” – four behaviors that researchers John and Julie Gottman determine to be the most corrosive to marriage. The presence of these negatives can predict the fate of a marriage, just as their namesakes in the Bible’s Book of Revelation usher in the end times. In other words, these behaviors are a pretty big deal, and if you care about your marriage, you would be wise to steer clear of them. Let’s take a look at the toxic pattern of defensiveness.

The Second Horseman: Defensiveness


The second of the Four Horsemen is defensiveness. Defensiveness is the attempt to defend oneself against a perceived attack. If someone comes at you with a sword, you’ll probably defend yourself by raising your shield, and you may even swing your sword back at them. It can be an understandable reaction at times; if someone continuously hurls insults at you, the “innocent victim,” then you may feel justified in your defensiveness. Defensiveness can happen in response to criticism, contempt, or even to neutral complaints. Regardless of why it occurs, defensiveness is destructive and usually escalates conflict. Often, people don’t realize they’re being defensive, so it’s important to be familiar with its various forms.


Defensiveness takes many forms. Familiarize yourself with these so you can identify them when they pop up.


When you don’t admit that you were wrong, and instead, you blame your spouse for doing/not doing something that would have stopped you from making your mistake.


Spouse 1: There’s nothing in the refrigerator!  We don’t have anything to eat for dinner!
Spouse 2: Well, you didn’t remind me to go to the grocery store!


You send a message that you didn’t do anything wrong, that your spouse is picking on you, and/or you never get noticed for the good things that you do. This style is often accompanied by whining. Whining has a distinct sound, but you can also whine without that sound. Whining always has the message of “Poor me.  I’m innocent!”


When a person denies responsibility, he or she blames the other person. No matter what your spouse says, you are not at fault.

Example #1:

Spouse 1: You don’t ever stop what you’re doing to sit and relax with me.
Spouse 2: If you would actually do something around the house, maybe I’d have some time to waste.

Example #2:

Spouse 1: We agreed that you wouldn’t drink at work parties because you become loud and boisterous, and that makes me uncomfortable. But you still drank at last’s night’s gala.
Spouse 2: You are always so critical and controlling! What about when you tell me what to do, and that makes me uncomfortable?


This one is often a part of denying responsibility.  The Drs. Gottman identify the theme as deflect, divert, attack, and defend. In this style, you respond to your spouse’s complaint or criticism with your own complaint or criticism, ignoring what your spouse said.


Spouse 1: I’m so mad that you bought a gun behind my back. That’s a major purchase, and it’s dangerous!
Spouse 2: What about when you went on that major shopping spree? You spent over $1,000 at one store! You know we don’t have that kind of money!


When you defend yourself in this way, you claim that circumstances beyond your control intervened and caused your behavior. You couldn’t help what you did, or you had a very good reason for what you did.


Spouse 1: You didn’t tell me that you went to the casino when you were on your business trip. You know how I feel about your gambling problem.
Spouse 2: The other guys wanted to go, and I had to go with them. We had to stay in a group.


You agree first, and then you disagree. You may support your mistake with a moral justification.


Spouse 1: You donated half of my stuff that I was storing in the garage!
Spouse 2: Yes, but I was trying to make it a neater, more usable space for you to do your woodworking.


Instead of listening and trying to understand your spouse, you focus on your own position. You think you’re right, so you keep restating your position; since you’re right, it’s pointless to hear what the other person has to say. You hope that by rephrasing and restating your point enough, and maybe even loudly enough, that your spouse will see how right you are and change their mind.


Spouse 1: I think that it’s too much for you to be gone to deer camp every weekend.
Spouse 2: Deer season is only for a short time every year.
Spouse 1: The kids need you to be around all year, not just part of the year.
Spouse 2: I love our kids, and I’m committed to being involved in their lives. Hunting is a limited opportunity, and it helps keep my relationships with my brothers strong.
Spouse 1: I support you going to deer camp, just not every weekend.
Spouse 2:  Deer season is only for a limited time. I’m not gone that much.

Make the brave choice to communicate differently. Let empathy, validation, understanding, and ownership of your own wrongdoings characterize the ways in which you interact with your spouse.

Getting Rid of Defensiveness

Now that you know what defensiveness looks like, consider the alternatives. Since defensiveness happens because of a perceived attack, you will need to see your spouse’s words in a different way. When your spouse brings up a complaint, think of it as a way that they are strongly expressing information and feelings. Try to empathize. Get inside their world and try to understand what it’s like to be them. Empathy and understanding can be transformational, especially during conflict. Validation is also a form of empathy. Communicating that you get, understand, and care about your spouse’s perspective and feelings goes a long way. Part of this will be you taking responsibility for your part in your spouse’s complaint. If you messed up, own it.

If defensiveness has been a pattern for you, your spouse may not trust this new way of responding at first. Don’t let that stop you. If you continue to re-frame what you hear and respond to with empathy, they’ll eventually see you mean it. As with all skills, you must practice!

Defensiveness is a dangerous dance, but you have a choice in how you think, feel, and respond. If you can manage your urge to defend and instead listen non-defensively, you will have broken the cycle of negativity. This means that you seek to understand and feel what your spouse is feeling. Similarly, if you speak non-defensively, your spouse will feel less of a need to be defensive. This means that in speaking, your goal is to deliver a specific complaint, not to criticize or be contemptuous. When one spouse makes a change, the cycle of negativity will change, and thus the atmosphere of the relationship will change.

Here are some examples of defensive responses and alternative ways of responding:

Example #1:

Spouse 1: You don’t pursue me, date me, or flirt with me anymore.
Spouse 2: Yes, I do. We went out to eat last month. (Alternative: I didn’t know those things were important to you. I guess I’ve become complacent in our 15 years of marriage. In that case, I’ve got a surprise for you on Saturday at 7:00 pm, and you should get dressed up. I’m calling a babysitter right now.)

Example #2:

Spouse 1: Would you be willing to recognize your tendency to be late? Most times that we go anywhere, we end up making others wait for us. I feel embarrassed, and I want to be more considerate of others’ time.
Spouse 2: I just have so much to do; it’s hard to fit everything in. I really can’t help it because there are only so many hours in a day. (Alternative: I know being late really bothers you, and I’ve taken advantage of your patience. You’re right. I need to be more considerate of everyone’s time, including yours. I get so caught up doing everything that needs to be done, but I see where I could ask for help.)

Example #3:

Spouse 1: You didn’t tell me that your mother was coming to visit!
Spouse 2: Yes, I did! (Alternative: I thought we talked about it, but maybe we didn’t. I’m so sorry I surprised you with this.)
Spouse 1: You definitely did not tell me she was coming to visit. (Alternative: Maybe you did tell me, but I guess I just wasn’t paying attention.)
Spouse 2: I am sure I told you. (Alternative: I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, so I probably forgot to tell you. I’ll take the blame for this one.)

Defensiveness will never be helpful or constructive. It only perpetuates negativity. If one spouse is defensive, chances are the other spouse will immediately become defensive. Instead, make the brave choice to communicate differently. Let empathy, validation, understanding, and ownership of your own wrongdoings characterize the ways in which you interact with your spouse. The results will be miraculous.

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