The # 1 Killer of Relationships?

It’s defensiveness.

Define defensiveness? It’s when you respond as if you’re on the attack — when you haven’t been attacked.

Defending oneself matters — with an actual adversary. But you’re not in a relationship with an adversary. Your spouse is not your enemy. Your best friend, your child, your parent — these people are not (or should not be) your enemies. If they are, then something has to be corrected, either in your thinking or in your choice to have them in your life.

Defensiveness gets in the way of listening. When you don’t listen, you’re forming your replies before the other party has a chance to explain. This leads your conversation partner NOT to feel visible. This isn’t in your own interest either — not if  a continuing relationship or association is your goal.

Denying the need of your partner to feel visible means denying him or her something you want for yourself. This turns your relationship/association into a one-way street. When you reach the dead end of that one-way street and your partner walks away, you have no business complaining. To that extent, you brought it on yourself.

Defensiveness implies you’re guilty of something. If you are guilty of something wrong or bad, you should own it. But most likely you aren’t guilty — and yet your defensiveness implies you are. It gets in the way of what you’re trying to defend!

The opposite of defensiveness is listening, but it goes deeper than that. The opposite of defensiveness is essentially reason, logic, facts — objectivity. You can be quiet and listen, even if you don’t agree or understand, serene in the knowledge that facts are still facts regardless of what the other person is saying.

If your conversation partner is saying some things that aren’t factual, you ought to point that out eventually. But you don’t have to do so right this second. People say things that aren’t true for one of two reasons. One, they’re dishonest and deliberately distorting the truth. Two, they really have misunderstood or got something honestly wrong. It makes sense to assume the latter first, giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. If they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt and you know them to be dishonest … well, you ought to reconsider the value of even having a conversation.

A lot of people, especially these days, ask me about defensiveness in arguments over politics. Everything I’m saying applies to that. It’s possible that on this topic, the person is your adversary because you and he/she do not share the same basic premises. If I find myself in a debate with someone about politics, I invite the person to shift away from the Trump-Democrat argument toward a more basic one. “What do you think the role of government should be? What are its limits?” Or: “How do you define freedom?” Does this usually work? No. The person usually wants to stay with anger and hostility on Trump, the Democrats, or whatever the subject is. I resign from the debate at that point, because it doesn’t interest me. It feels like something more psychological is going on, and the person isn’t really interested in exploring the topic in a deeper, more interesting and ultimately more enlightening way. Good-bye.

No matter how you look at it, defensiveness does not work or make sense, even on its own terms. Be strong, confident and forthright in what you think, believe and know. But real strength comes with a serenity that the chronically defensive person does not have.


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