Conversation 2.0

Communication - husband and wife holding hands through broken brick wall, looking at each other in the eyes.
Sarah Wilkin
Improve communication by dismantling defensiveness in your marriage

My husband and our high school son went for a summer bike ride. As the sun set, I kept expecting them to ride down our driveway. When darkness fell, I texted Mark, but by that point, my communication was loaded with anxiety, fear and frustration. 

Mark eventually texted that they were almost home. He could have matched my emotional intensity with a defensive response, but he didn’t. Instead, he disarmed my emotions with a gentle, empathetic response and then continued the conversation after they arrived home. 

Conflict was averted. I felt heard and valued, and our relationship remained intact. Over the years, Mark and I have learned to dial down defensiveness in our marriage. 

Better versions of ourselves

Mark and I often say we’ve been married 39 years—29 of them happily. No, there weren’t 10 bad years in a row. There were simply a lot of ups and downs. We’ve worked hard on our relationship over the years and now call ourselves Mark and Jill 2.0. Dialing down defensiveness has been a big part of this makeover. 

Defensiveness usually rears its ugly head when we receive what we perceive as negative feedback from our spouse. When we’re defensive, the reasons for our actions become more important than the relationship itself. It causes a struggle in communication with one another. Learning to let go of defensiveness happens when the relationship becomes more important than the reasons. 

In the past, Mark likely would have defended his reasons for continuing to ride in the dark. He wouldn’t have addressed how his decision caused me to worry. This time, he focused on our relationship and let go of the reasons. By listening and responding to my fear and anxiety, he kept defensiveness out of the picture.

Defensive patterns

Even if your spouse isn’t working on being less defensive, you can make a difference by choosing to dismantle your own defensiveness and interact differently with your partner. Here are some practical steps for dialing down defensiveness and infusing more compassion into your marriage. 

Listen to understand, not to respond. 

Most of us are unskilled listeners who listen to respond rather than to understand. But listening to understand lets your spouse know she is seen, heard and valued. This doesn’t mean you can’t respond at some point, but working to understand your spouse’s perspective before you respond will help you keep defensiveness at bay.

Respond with empathy first. 

A great way to express empathy for your spouse is to start with the words, “I can only imagine . . .” For instance, if your spouse says, “The way you just spoke to me felt like you were parenting me,” avoid a defensive response like “Well, if you were responsible, I wouldn’t have to parent you.” Respond instead with empathy: “I can only imagine how that made you feel. Thank you for giving me that feedback.” 

If you need to share your perspective, save it for later.

Good communication is rarely efficient. Instead of sharing your perspective immediately, take some time to consider what you’ve heard. Slowing down your response time will greatly reduce defensiveness. 

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