The Four Horsemen and the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy – Part Three

In this four-part series, I’ve been sharing information about the Four Horsemen and the Gottman Method of couples therapy. Defensiveness is the third of Gottman’s Four Horsemen. As a reminder, the Four Horsemen are communication pitfalls that couples utilize when disagreeing and arguing. They contribute significantly to relational strife and discontent, and defensiveness is often considered the most common. Defensive behavior can be defined as self-protection from a perceived attack from your partner that either is, or feels like judgement or criticism.

To understand defensive behavior, it’s helpful to consider what it means to defend. Defending someone or something means to protect from harm. When you are being defensive in a psychological sense, you are defending yourself from someone who’s opinion is important to you. Because you care greatly about what this person thinks about you, you instantly feel the need to justify your decisions, thoughts, feelings, and personality traits. This is why defensive behavior is so common in marriage and intimate relationships. We care so much about our partner that it hurts when they express disappointment in us. To avoid that kind of pain, we quickly move into the bunker of defensiveness, ready to defend our actions and who we are.

Defensive behavior is a complex psychological response. It involves a combination of your feelings, attitudes, beliefs, as well as your personality traits. Our brains are wired to protect us from harm. This is an important physical and psychological feature that prevents humans from being helpless. And usually, individuals who are engaging in defensive behavior are not doing so maliciously, although it can sometimes feel that way. Instead, when someone is acting defensive, they are doing so primarily to help themselves feel better. It is often easier to notice defensive behaviors in someone else than notice them in ourselves. Here are some common defensive behaviors:
• Making excuses.
• Accusing the other person of the same behavior.
• Blaming the other person for the problem.
• Dismissing the problem as irrelevant or silly.
• Non-verbal responses such as eye-rolling or making faces.
• Appearing to not listen or care about what the other person is saying.
These strategies are rarely effective. Excusing, blaming, and dismissing relay the message to your partner that you don’t take them seriously and don’t care about their feelings or concerns. Resolving relational conflict is compounded by the fact that, according to the Gottman Institute, 69% of conflict in relationships usually involves unresolvable, perpetual problems that require compromise, rather than one partner being right and the other partner being wrong. To avoid defensive behavior, couples can utilize a number of tools that will aid in not only resolving conflict better and quicker, but can also promote a stronger emotional connection between partners.

Take a Breath
The space between emotional stimulus, such as a complaint or criticism directed at you, and your response to that stimulus, is often extremely small. It only takes a fraction of a second for your brain to respond to a perceived emotional threat. Creating a bigger space between emotional stimulus and your response is essential in avoiding defensive behavior. By taking a few deep breaths before responding it gives your brain time to respond rather than react by being defensive.

Stay Curious
Staying curious amidst a perceived emotional threat keeps the thinking center of the brain activated, which allows you to stay calmer and to think more clearly during an argument or discussion. Curiosity involves asking yourself questions or asking your partner questions. For example, you may ask yourself, “What do I know about my partner that might be making him or her say these things or react this way?” or “What does my partner need from me right now?” Questions you can ask your partner include, “I’m trying to understand this better, can you explain it again?” or “How can I help?”. Asking yourself and your partner questions sends the message to your partner that you are interested in addressing their concern and doing your part to make the problem better.

Utilize Empathy
Empathy is the challenging act of putting our own concerns, feelings, and agendas aside and fully recognizing our partner’s individual emotional experience and perceptions of problems or behaviors. Remember, in any relationship the only objective fact is that each person in the relationship has their own subjective experience. In other words, our emotional experiences are often very different from our partner’s but are very real to us. Even memory can be subjective and couples will often disagree on specific “facts” regarding a past argument, problem or concern. Empathy is the act of accepting our partner’s perceptions, feelings, and experiences as important and legitimate. Utilizing empathy can be challenging because it requires feelings of vulnerability, which can often feel uncomfortable. But without vulnerability, conflict is rarely resolved and connection is rarely made.

Take Responsibility
This may be the simplest, quickest, and most effective antidote for defensive behavior. Whether you are responding to defensive behavior by your partner, or doing your best to avoid utilizing defensiveness yourself, taking responsibility will usually solve the problem rather quickly. Here’s an example:
“You forgot to take the trash out again, even though I reminded you this morning!”
Defensive response: “You know how busy I am and besides, it’s not that hard. You can do it just as easily!”
Effective response: “You’re right, I can’t believe I forgot to do it again! Thanks for taking care of it. I’m going to make a note right now so I don’t forget again.”
What could have been a long and drawn-out argument is resolved in just a few sentences.

Self-correction is a technique utilized in the Gottman Method that provides couples with an opportunity to correct a defensive behavior during an argument. Self-correction is the process of catching yourself when you step into a defensive behavior, such as blaming, criticizing, or dismissing, apologizing, and starting your sentence again in an effective way. Self-correction promotes connection and respect among partners and sends the message to your partner that you are trying and want to work out the problem.

There is a concept in the art of negotiation known as “behavioral blind spots”. Behavioral blind spots are those traits about ourselves that are difficult to see or accept. Often, when someone verbally recognizes our behavior blind spots, we shut them down quickly because their observation instantly feels wrong and threatening. Accepting the fact that we don’t always know ourselves as well as we think we do, can open up opportunities to respond more effectively to our partner and avoid defensive behaviors.

If you are experiencing relational problems and would like to learn more about the Gottman Method, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando mental health counselors.

Lisitsa, E. (2013, May 6). The Four Horsemen: Defensiveness. Retrieved from http://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-defensiveness/


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