In Part One we looked at how a complaint, even a valid complaint, can become an attack on your partner’s entire character by turning it into criticism. When people feel attacked, the typical reaction is to defend. The second horseman is defensiveness. Essentially, it is any attempt to protect oneself from a perceived attack.
In marriage, defensiveness deflects responsibility onto one’s partner. “I didn’t take the trash out because you forgot to remind me” or, “If you wouldn’t nag me, I wouldn’t get so angry” or, “You think I’m late all the time? You’re always late for everything!” Rather than something being my problem or our problem it’s your problem.
Defensiveness usually takes a victim stance. “I’m the innocent one here. YOU are the problem.” There is typically a whining tone that accompanies the excuse. In the old song Charlie Brown by The Coasters the boy that constantly gets in trouble says, “Why is everybody always picking on me?” Everyone is actually wondering when Charlie Brown is going to grow up and take school seriously.
Defensiveness is a reaction to a “perceived” attack. It may or may not be an actual attack, but it feels like one to the defensive person. Some people have difficulty accepting any sort of correction or complaint against them for various reasons. Some people deflect responsibility because they know that taking responsibility requires a change in their behavior. Change usually implies some sort of effort or prioritizing.
Defensiveness hurts relationships because it fuels the cycle of attacking each other rather than attacking the problem together. The antidote is to accept one’s role in the problem. Take responsibility for yourself and avoid blaming your mistakes or failures on others.
Part One begins a four-part series on what John Gottman* called “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Each of the “Horsemen” are negative behaviors within marriage that are particularly corrosive in nature and even help predict how likely a marriage is to survive.
It is not uncommon or even unhealthy for spouses to argue. The manner in which a couple argues, however, makes a big difference in the quality of their friendship and, consequently, their marriage. While most marriages will experience “The Four Horsemen” to some degree, it is those marriages that have a high degree of one or more Horsemen that are most at risk. We begin with Criticism.
Criticism is any statement that suggests that there is something globally wrong with your partner. It is an attack on one’s overall character as opposed to a valid complaint about specific behaviors. The words “you always” or “you never” signal the beginning of a criticism.
There is nothing wrong with a valid complaint. For example, a complaint might be something like, “I’m upset that you promised to give the kids a bath but you didn’t.” This complaint can easily be transformed into a criticism by adding, “What is wrong with you?” or “Can’t you ever just do what I ask?”
There are a whole set of questions that really aren’t questions at all. Adults often ask children these questions and they are actually insults. “Why are you so slow?” “Why are you so clumsy?” “Why are you so inconsiderate?” “Why are you so self-centered?” Or, to turn a complaint into a criticism, simply add “you never” or “you always.”
Criticism naturally puts your partner on the defensive and feeds into a destructive cycle. Defensiveness is the second Horseman we will explore in Part Two.
*Credit to The Marriage Clinic, by John Gottman