Sarah, Jon’s girlfriend of three years (and a client of mine) experiences Jon as “bafflingly defensive.” Jon reports that he has been called “defensive” by every woman he’s ever dated. Not surprisingly, he denies his own defensiveness, and blames his ex-girlfriends for being demanding, impossible to please, aggressive, and his favorite criticism: controlling.
According to Sarah, just trying to tell Jon about something he said that was hurtful is a monumental challenge. Jon's first defense it to deny it ever happened; he simply didn’t say what she heard him say. According to Jon, she has distorted his words or made it up. If Sarah holds her ground, Jon then insists that she look at her own behavior, what she did to make him say what he said. At other times, he launches into a diatribe on what she is doing to him in that moment, how her current complaint is an aggression on him. If Sarah continues, Jon then goes on full-attack; he shakes his head in disgust and says things like “You should look at your face, listen to your tone; you’re the angry one.” He then accuses her of trying to control him, claiming that if he does anything that’s not what she wants or thinks is right, she has to put him down and be in control.
At this point, Sarah is the one who feels controlled, and also silenced, and enraged. She loses her cool and begins shouting. The conversation (that was never a conversation) then becomes a fight, which usually ends with Sarah walking out of the room, often trailed by Jon’s voice accusing her of controlling the interaction even further with her departure.
Sadly, this kind of event happens all the time in couples. Sadly, Sarah, and all the women and men who live this relational scenario, never get to share what simply hurts. As a result, Sarah never gets to feel heard, known, empathized with, or loved. Her hurt (and her whole experience) is rejected, which means that she is rejected.
Sarah starts out feeling hurt by something specific, often a small comment or event; she starts out just needing a bit of validation and kindness, a basic acknowledgment of her experience. But, what she gets instead is an attack on her, and a fight. She ends up with the same hurt she started out with, and now, on top of that, a whole pile of criticisms to manage. Now, she not only feels hurt, but also angry, lonely, frustrated, and unloved. Trying to express her upset is a lose-lose event for Sarah.
At the same time, Sarah feels stymied by these interactions; things in the relationship can never change or improve if what hurts her can never be taken to heart or processed. This stuckness then adds to the sadness of the situation.
Those of you reading this might say it’s obvious Sarah needs to leave Jon, and that what she is living is clear-cut emotional abuse. But here’s the problem: Sarah doesn’t want to leave Jon. She still loves him and believes that there are enough positive aspects to the relationship for her to stay. Besides being defensive, Jon is also witty and smart, funny and loving; he showers her with affection and takes her on exciting travel adventures. He has a loving extended family whom she adores ... and the list goes on.
The problem in the midst of all these good things however, is that when Jon does something that upsets her, there’s no effective way to share it with him. Sarah has to swallow her hurt and anger, or if it’s too much to swallow, she has to put herself in the firing line of his anger.
What Sarah wants from me are coping strategies; how to communicate effectively and feel less triggered by Jon's defensiveness. She wants to be happier within this relationship, to not take his defensiveness so personally, not bite the hook when he attacks, and just generally, be able to stay off his roller coaster of anger.
With this as my charge, I offered Sarah the following suggestions.
When communicating your feelings:
1. Stick to the facts. Be very specific about what happened that upset you. Use the specific words that were spoken and the precise chain of events that occurred when expressing your feelings. “I said this, then you said that.” Don’t go wide and don’t generalize; don’t make interpretations as they encourage defensiveness.
2. Use “I” statements. “I felt hurt,” “I felt misunderstood.” Keep the conversation on what is non-negotiable and inarguable—your own experience.
3. Do not mirror the defensive person’s anger. Keep your voice even and steady. Stay calm! This may be the most important advice I can offer. As difficult as it is to stay calm when we feel unfairly attacked, it is absolutely critical not to meet the defensive person’s anger with more anger. Anger added to anger creates a fireball that only strengthens the defensive person’s case against you. Your anger furthers their claim that you are to blame for what’s happening (and they are innocent).
4. Raise your hand up towards the other person with an open palm, to signal stop. This gesture creates separation and a message that cannot be fought with in the same way that words can. If it feels right, accompany this stop gesture with the calm words, “Please don’t use that tone with me,” or “Please don’t talk to me this way.”
5. Repeat yourself. When the defensive person takes the conversation to other topics, and most often to the topic of you, repeat the same words you started with, calmly and in a low and slow voice, “I felt upset when you said this...” And then again, after he/she has shifted topics, “I felt upset when you said this...” Do not defend yourself against their accusations; do not take the bait. No matter how difficult or counter-intuitive it might feel, ignore what's coming at you and return to the experience you're trying to express.
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6. Physically remove yourself. Leave the room, no explanation needed.
7. In a moment when things are going well with your partner, a moment of closeness, share your experience of your partner’s defensiveness. But don't make it about their being defensive (no surprise), make it about wanting to be closer and more intimate with your partner. Express your wish to be able to share honestly: what works in the relationship—and also—what doesn’t work. Most importantly, let your partner know that even when you are upset about something he or she said, you still love and respect them.
For those of you who are outraged that I would try and help someone find peace within such a relationship and that the only thing I should be doing is helping Sarah leave Jon, I would say this: Sarah didn't want to leave the relationship, on that point she was clear. She wanted me to help her find peace within what was a flawed relationship, like every relationship. Many women and men choose to stay in relationships that, judging from the outside, we might say should end. Many women and men are even happy in relationships that, judging from the outside, are unthinkable. And so it is; welcome to the world of human relationships. "Judging from the outside" are four words that ultimately are useless.
If you are in a relationship with someone defensive, who uses anger to shut you down and control you, perhaps some of my advice may help. I hope so. Intimate relationships are difficult; relationships in which it’s impossible to share what hurts are even more difficult, and lonely.
As is always the case in relationship, however, the more you can untether yourself from your partner’s behavior and reactions; the better you are at not biting your partner's hook and not boarding your partner's emotional roller coaster, the happier and more content you will be. And, the more you will be in control of your own internal state. The path to peace in relationship is often chock-full of conditions we don't like, and conditions we've been taught we shouldn't have to travel. We can choose to wait for a perfect relationship or we can choose to be well, now.