Defensiveness in Marriage

One core problem in marriage that fights against meekness is criticism. According to marriage expert, Dr. John Gottman, criticism leads to defensiveness, and defensiveness leads to withdrawal. In fact, Dr. Gottman has identified in his research that criticism and defensiveness are two key components in marriage that predict separation and divorce. Defensiveness is an automatic, emotional reaction to criticism which is hard to resist engaging in in. Being defensive is a defense mechanism. Gottman argues that “defensiveness is fundamentally an attempt to protect yourself and ward off a perceived attack.”[1] Unfortunately, when marriage partners become defensive in marriage, first, they become closed off to some of the suggestions their spouse is providing to them. Gottman added, “The major problem with defensiveness is that it obstructs communication. Rather than understanding each other’s perspective you spend your discussions defending yourselves. Nothing gets resolved, so the conflict continues to escalate.”[2] Moreover, even if your partner is critical of you, some of their suggestions may be very helpful for our growth and improvement. Second, defensiveness creates contention in all relationships. When defensiveness and contention are present, the conversation is usually over—at least the productive part. Defensiveness leaves marriage partners feeling unheard or misunderstood. Third, defensiveness keeps individuals from accepting responsibility for their actions. If a spouse is defensive, they are justifying their behavior, or blaming their partner for the problem. In essence, the defensive partner is telling their spouse, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.”[3] Finally, defensiveness keeps husbands and wives from putting their spouse’s needs and happiness above their own. In a sense, the defensive partner is saying, “I don’t care what you need in the marriage, this is what I need.” Defensiveness is self-focused. True love is when we focus on our partner’s needs before our own. President Gordon B. Hinckley advised couples, “If you will make your first concern the comfort, the wellbeing, and the happiness of your companion, sublimating any personal concern to that loftier goal, you will be happy, and your marriage will go on through eternity.”[4]

Defensiveness in Marriage

A close friend, I will call Rob, shared the following experience:

Several years ago, I noticed something in my own marriage that began to bother me. I wish I could blame this problem on my wife, but I knew that I was the problem. I became aware that each time my wife would question a decision I had made, or take another approach or angle to an idea I had, or simple not show her enthusiasm for something I had accomplished, I began to be defensive. I would immediately counter back with “why don’t you ever like my ideas,” or “do I get a say on this,” or “how come you never like the way I do things.”

The more I defended myself, the more angry and resentful I was becoming. Then, one day with sudden clarity, I realized that I was not being meek. Instead, I was being proud, selfish, and defensive. After all, my wife’s ideas were not a direct attack on me— she was simply trying to help me improve my business, our lawn, or the ward where I was serving as Bishop. And frankly, her ideas were very good. I recognized that had I been meek and humble, I would have received her counsel and wisdom as revelation from heaven. Instead, I often fought against her suggestions because I often felt inadequate or incompetent. As a result, my wife felt she could never offer any suggestions to improve our marriage or our family. Soon, we quit talking about the things that mattered most. My wife later revealed to me that she wanted to keep our conversations “safe” so we only discussed superficial things, like who would pick up the kids from soccer practice, or take the dog to the vet.

It is clear from this example how the lack of meekness can stifle or hinder a marriage. If Rob would have stripped himself of pride and become humble, his wife could have helped him in his calling, in his business, and in their marriage. Because of Rob’s unwillingness to listen and his rejection to his wife’s ideas, all other areas in his life suffered, including his marriage.

Another friend I will call Steve shared the following experience. Steve had made some improvements on his home while his wife, Sherrie, was away at girl’s camp. He was excited for Sherrie to return home, knowing that he had done several things that would make her happy. Steve finished tiling a bathroom, built some additional shelves in the pantry, and painted a bedroom. When Sherrie came home, she did notice the tile, and the paint, and the shelves. She complimented Steve on how good things looked, and was happy that he would make such an effort for her. However, as they walked through the garage, which was still quite a mess, Sherrie said to him, “I thought you were going to tackle the garage as well.” Immediately, Steve became defensive. He sharply responded, “I was up every night until midnight painting and tiling. I didn’t have time to clean the garage. What did you want me to do, stay up until 3:00 a.m. each morning working on this dumb house?” Immediately, Sherrie became silent, and Steve realized that he had fired a bazooka, when a sling shot would have done the trick. His response did not demonstrate meekness, but rather pride and defensiveness.

People who complain need something—they need comfort. Sherrie wasn’t attacking Steve, she simply had a need. Her need was that the garage be cleaned so that they could have some order in their home. For Sherrie, she was simply expecting to come home and have a place to put all of their camping gear. Besides, cleaning the garage was the one thing she had asked Steve to do while she was gone. Perhaps she should not have been so critical after all of the hard work Steve had done; however, none of us can control how our spouses will react. The only thing we can control is how we respond to those reactions. Therefore, understanding that people who complain need comfort, Steve could have said, “Don’t worry honey, I didn’t have enough time to get to the garage because I was so busy with the other projects, but I will get to it this weekend. It will all work out.” It would have been that simple! They could have hugged in the middle of the garage and perhaps had a tender moment together. Instead, they didn’t speak to each other until later the next day.

Lord, Is It I?

Perhaps the greatest way to combat defensiveness can be found in the New Testament. As Jesus was preparing for his final hours, he told his disciples that one of them would betray him. In Matthew 26:22, we read, “And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?” In essence, each of the Apostles wondered, “I wonder if it’s me? I wonder what I could have done.” What a fascinating concept in marriage! If we spent more time asking, “What is my contribution to this mess?” instead of blaming our partner, relationships would be much stronger, and more fulfilling for both spouses. The only effective way to improve any relationship is to improve you.

This notion of changing yourself first is not new. In fact, it has been around for quite some time. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter seven, verse three and four, we read:

(3) And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eye?

(4) Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

From the LDS edition of the Bible, looking at footnote 3a, we learn that a mote is a speck of wood, or a chip, or splinter. On the other hand, footnote 3c helps us to understand that a beam refers a large beam used in the construction of homes. Put another way, “Why worry about the splinter in my eye, when you have a gigantic 15 foot long beam stuck in your own eye?”

The Joseph Smith Translation adds the following verses to this sermon:

(6) And Jesus said unto his disciples, Beholdest thou the Scribes, and the Pharisees, and the Priests, and the Levites? They teach in their synagogues, but do not observe the law, nor the commandments; and all have gone out of the way, and are under sin.

(7) Go thou and say unto them, Why teach ye men the law and the commandments, when ye yourselves are the children of corruption?

(8) Say unto them, Ye hypocrites, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Do you see the point? How can we correct our spouse and chastise them for small specs of dust in their eyes when we may have a two by four sticking out of our own? Moreover, with that large beam in our own eye, we have prevented ourselves from seeing clearly what reality actually is. Our view is distorted because of our own mistakes, sins, and shortcomings. Therefore, before we grab hold of the pulpit, set the microphone just right, and give our best sermon, we may want to examine our own lives, our own pride, and our own selfishness. More than likely, our own issues are contributing more to the difficulties in our marriage than those of our spouse. Remember the question asked by the disciples of Jesus at the last supper? “Lord, is it I?”

Many wives, for example, feel that if they could just get their husbands into some counseling, perhaps the therapist could talk some sense into their mate, and consequently, their problems would be solved. Perhaps some husbands feel that if their wives could just get in and talk to the bishop, then their marriage could get back on the right track. Generations have taught us however, that no matter how hard we try, we never will be able to change our spouse. All we can really do is change ourselves.

[1] John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, [Simon & Schuster: New York, 1994], 85.

[2] Ibid, 90.

[3] John M. Gottman, Ph.D., The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 32.

[4] President Gordon B. Hinckley, The Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 329.