Relationship Skills

Overcoming Defensiveness (Pt. 1 of 2)

by Harold and Bette Gillogly

It’s instinctive.  We all do it.  Our mates say something perfectly innocent, we take it personally and become defensive. It’s as though we feel we must protect ourselves at any cost.  In fact, that’s what “to defend” means: to protect.  The problem is that protecting has two sides, for when we are defensive, we feel we must oppose our mates in order to defend ourselves.

Harv is rushing around trying to leave for the office.  His wife Louise remarks, “Your tie is crooked.”  Harv responds sarcastically, “Do you have any more encouraging words for me today?” Louise is stumped by her husband’s reaction.  “I was only trying to help,” she shrugs her shoulders in a helpless gesture.  “Well, thanks!  I don’t know how I ever made it before I married you,” Harv bellows as he storms out the door.

Does anything like that ever happen at your house?  Well, that’s defensiveness…and it’s as destructive as any assault weapon.  Actually, that’s exactly what it is — an assault weapon.

What causes us to be so defensive with our mates?   We’ve identified at least six factors which seem to increase defensiveness.  Here they are.

  1. When we focus on our own needs rather than our mate’s. When we nurture thoughts like: “He never meets my needs,”  “She doesn’t care about me,”  we become so focused on what we think we should be getting out of our marriage, we actually look for evidence that our mates don’t truly love us like they should.  Are you quick to take offense and react defensively with your partner?  Then check your focus:  is it self-centered or mate-centered?
  2. When our self-worth is threatened. The more passionately the defensive response, the more deeply self-worth has been threatened. When you react defensively against your mate, do you yell?  Huff and puff?  Slam doors? Then check your motives.  Why do you feel so threatened?
  3. When we have unresolved conflict.  Have you ever noticed when a fight drags on, your emotions are ultra sensitive — like an open wound? Anything and everything feels like sand paper!  The smallest comment becomes “fightin’ words.”  Is there unresolved conflict between you and your mate? Then your first order of business is to get it settled.
  4. When we are physically under par.  When we haven’t had enough rest, when we’re ill, when we aren’t exercising or eating rightall these increase our tendency to be defensive.  Do any of these physical complaints apply to you? Can you do something to correct them?
  5. When we are under stress in other areas of our lives.  We all have stress in many areas of our lives: work, school, finances, children, teenagers, you name it.  When we handle stress poorly, we can feel and react defensively on several fronts at the same time.  This adds even more stress to our lives.  If stress is a major problem in your life, you know something has to change, don’t you?  Either some of the causes of stress have to go, or you must learn, without delay, better ways of handling it.
  6.  When we feel our mates are parenting us.  When your mate parents you, do you feel incompetent?  Well, that’s how your mate feels when you parent them.  See how that can make you defensive?

Did you identify which of these six factors influence your defensive behavior?  Remember, we mentioned defensiveness is like an assault weapon. How does this weapon destroy our relationships, especially our marriage relationship?  It destroys them by shutting down our communication — stops it dead in its tracks!  The operative word here is “dead,” for when communication dies, it’s only a matter of time until the relationship dies.

Where does our defensiveness start? Where are we to look if we are to learn how to stop being defensive?  First of all, we must examine what’s going on in our minds.  God’s Word says that as a man thinks within himself, so he is (Proverbs 23:7).  Therefore, if we are to change our defensive attitude, we must first analyze what we’re thinking, because our defensiveness starts with our THOT-TALK.

What exactly is THOT-TALK?  It is our inner conversations: the messages we tell ourselves about ourselves, our spouse, our experiences, the past, future, God, etc.  They are the thoughts that evaluate facts and events in our lives, the judgments we make about what is happening to us and around us. Some-times they are clear statements in our mind; sometimes they are merely images or impressions.  Everyone has THOT-TALK.

Our THOT-TALK has a powerful effect on us!  Scripture mentions the mind and its related functions over 300 times.  It must be an extremely important subject if God spent that much energy to make sure we understand that we must renew our minds (Romans 12:2), that we must take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).  Here are some reasons why THOT-TALK exerts such power in our lives.

(1)  Most of our emotions (our feelings) — anger, depression, guilt, worry, happiness, sense of well-being, contentment, etc. — are born and grow in our THOT-TALK.  Whether our emotions are positive or negative, they start in our minds.

(2) The way we behave (our actions) toward our spouse is determined by our THOT-TALK — not by our mates’ behavior.  We make judgments in our minds, then act upon them.  We can not blame our spouse for the way we act toward them.  No one else is to blame for our actions.

(3)  What we say and how we say it (our words and attitudes) are a direct expression of our THOT-TALK.  See why our THOT-TALK has so much power?  Our feelings, our behavior, our attitudes and our communication all come from our THOT-TALK.  Is it any wonder the Bible says, “As a man thinks within himself, so he is”?

So far, we’ve investigated some causes of our defensiveness, how it can destroy our marriage, and how it starts with our THOT-TALK.  Now let’s examine some of the ways we practice THOT-TALK and what we can do about them.

  1. One way we all practice THOT-TALK is called personalizing.  This is the THOT-TALK pattern in which we believe that situations revolve around us. Remember when you were 15…and had a zit?  When you walked into 4th period English class, didn’t you feel like everyone turned and looked at you?  And not just at you — at your zit!  Our bodies may have matured since then, but most of us are still 15 years old somewhere inside.  And we still think circumstances and other people’s emotions revolve around us.

Here’s a scenario we might witness at your house. Your husband comes home from work.  He’s frustrated and grumpy because he had a run-in with his boss this afternoon. Right away you become defensive because you assume, “It must have been something I did.  He’s mad at me again.  He blames me for every-thing!” So you get angry and defensive.

What are the probable results of your personalizing?  Your self worth usually drops about 52 points, and you will probably do one of two things:  either you will pull away from your mate or you will attack him.  You might say something like, “What did I do this time?  You’re always coming home angry,  and I pay for it.  You just don’t love me anymore!”

Your personalizing THOT-TALK affected your emotions — You felt resentful.  Then it affected your behavior — You became defensive.  Then it affected your attitude toward your mate and your communication with him. We’re sure, with both of you in such great moods, the rest of the evening was one ecstasy after another.

Is there a solution to personalizing THOT-TALK?  YES! Your thoughts don’t have to take you captive.  God says you must take them captive and make them obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). And since He commands this, He must also give the power to obey.  We have found the most effective way for us to take our THOT-TALK captive is to challenge the negative thoughts and substitute positive THOT-TALK.

Your new THOT-TALK can go something like this: “We both can learn from this situation.  I don’t know if he’s angry at me or if he’s just angry? He can feel frustrated if he had a bad day.  It doesn’t mean he loves me less.  I am not going to take his frustration personally.  I can allow him the freedom to express it.  Maybe he really needs to talk about it.”  These thoughts would allow you to say, “Sounds like you had a difficult day, do you want to talk about what happened or do you just need some space?”

  1. A second THOT-TALK pattern is known as magnifying and minimizing. We blow negative events out of proportion and overlook the positive ones.  In other words, we make a big deal about nothing.  Little things our mates may say or situations that may occur are viewed as catastrophes.

Remember Harv and Louise?  Would you say Harv was practicing some magnifying and minimizing THOT-TALK?  It appears he felt like Louise was “parenting” him, so he reacted with biting sarcasm.

What do you suppose resulted from Harv’s magnifying and minimizing? One result was to blame Louise for what happened.  He may have felt bad about the way he reacted, we often do too.  But we almost always feel we were justified in our defensiveness.

Let’s analyze Harv’s THOT-TALK. His magnifying and minimizing thoughts affected his emotions — He felt his wife was questioning his competency, and he resented it.  His THOT-TALK affected his behavior — He became defensive.  It then affected his attitude toward his wife and his communication with her — His sarcasm shut her up quite effectively.

There is a solution for Maximizing and Minimizing THOT-TALK.  It is the very same solution as for Personalizing. We must Challenge the Negative THOT-TALK and substitute Positive THOT-TALK.  You can even have a challenge statement you use every time you become aware of negative THOT-TALK.  Our favorite challenge statement is “No, I do not want to think that.  It is not true.”

Harv’s new THOT-TALK could continue with something like: ”Wait a minute, she wasn’t trying to put me down.  I can take suggestions from her without getting so upset.  After all, if my tie is crooked, I do want to fix it before I get to work.  This is not a big deal!”

There are two more THOT-TALK patterns we want to cover, but they will have to wait ’til next time.  In the next Seeds for Growth, we will also discuss how we can stop being so defensive, and how that will develop better communication with our mates.

Defensiveness is a killer!  And we, along with you, want to rid our relationship of it.  We can start today by giving our mates these precious gifts:  we can let them know we are with them, that we believe in them, that we value them.  We may be surprised how their defenses come tumbling down.

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