Is Your Spouse Defensive? Read this!

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Me: “You never take the garbage out!”

Husband: “That’s not true.”


Me: “You’re not listening to me!”

Husband: “Yes I am.”

Me: “Why don’t you ever cook dinner for me?”

Husband: “I do.”


These kinds of maddening little conversations happen all the time. It drives me crazy, partly because he’s right. His responses are technically accurate. It doesn’t matter that he’s cooked me dinner twice in the last year, it’s still a technically true response. But that’s not what really drives me nuts. It’s his defensiveness. Instead of agreeing with me, he’s defending himself. I don’t want to debate about the accuracy of my statement, I want two things: I want empathy and I want something

to change.

I want him to say:

“I’m sorry I didn’t take the garbage out last night. I promise I’ll do it next week.”


“Oh, you’re not feeling heard, my love. I’m so sorry. Let me stop what I’m doing and come look in your eyes and listen to everything you have to say.”


“I’m sorry you feel burdened by cooking dinner for me most nights. I really appreciate your cooking. And how about if I cook dinner once a week?”

Ahhhh. Just thinking about him saying those things makes me feel better. If he said those things, I would feel loved and cared about and understood and appreciated.

Defensiveness is such a deeply ingrained habit, for all of us. Of course we’re going to defend ourselves, it’s as natural as putting your hands up to your face when something is about to hit it. If we didn’t protect ourselves, we would get hurt.

However, in a relationship, a defensive response isn’t helpful. It leaves the other person feeling disregarded, like what they just said was unimportant, untrue, or wrong. It erodes connection, creates more distance and is a dead end to the conversation. Defensiveness is the opposite of what really helps relationships stay on track: taking responsibility for one’s own actions.

John Gottman, arguably the world’s foremost expert on marital research, reports that defensiveness is one of what he calls “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” That is, when couples have these four communication habits, the likelihood that they’ll get divorced is 96%.

I’m counting on never getting divorced (again) but I don’t like those odds, so I really want my husband to stop being defensive.

But guess what? One of the other four horsemen is criticism. And I can count on my husband’s defensiveness being in response to a criticism from me.

What if instead of saying “You never take out the garbage!” I said, “Honey, I’ve been taking the garbage out a lot lately, and we decided that that was your job. Could you maybe get back on the ball with that?” And how about if instead of “You’re not listening to me!” I said, “Hey love, when you’re on your computer when I’m telling you about my day, I feel kind of ignored. And I start to make up a story that you’d rather read the news than hear about my day.” And how about if I just came out and asked if he’d cook me dinner more often? Yeah, I think all of those would go over better.

How did we ever get the idea that it’s okay to lodge a complaint with our partner in the form of a criticism? If I had a boss, I would never say to my boss, “You never give me a raise!” That would be ridiculous. I would present my case for why I deserve one and ask for it. I would never say to my daughter, “You never clean up your toys!” That would simply be pathetic. Instead, I give her clear instructions, over and over again, about what I expect. A marriage is neither of these situations for many reasons, but what is the same is that it is actually pretty ridiculous and pathetic to level “you never” accusations at your spouse.


It’s hard. It’s hard not to criticize and it’s hard not to be defensive.

Sometimes, I tell my husband what I wish he’d said instead of his defensive-yet-true response. That seems to help a little, because occasionally I get a more empathetic response when I complain. But when I’m really on top of my game, I ask for a do-over. Do-overs are great. I catch myself being critical and then I say, “Wait! Erase that! What I meant to say was…” That doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like it to, but I’m working on it. I’m working on it because no one wants to be criticized, and I certainly don’t want to treat the man I love that way. (Plus, I know that criticism is never going to get me the response I want!) I try to remember the saying “Underneath every criticism is an unmet need.” If I can just talk in terms of what I want and need instead of being critical, we’ll both feel better. And I’m pretty sure we won’t end up divorced!

Why You Should Hold Hands When You Fight

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If you’re anything like I used to be, the last thing you want is to be touched by your partner when you’re fighting. It used to be that if my partner and I were fighting, and he would reach out to me in any way, I would pull away. I’d also cross my arms, maybe even turn my back to him. And glare. I had a really good glare that I developed in childhood when I was mad at my parents.

But I’ve been practicing a new way to fight.

Danger & The Reptilian Brain

There’s a good reason why we tend to pull away during a fight: we don’t feel safe. More specifically, our reptilian brains sense danger—life or death type danger– and our autonomic nervous systems go into fight or flight mode. Why does the reptilian brain get triggered when we’re fighting about who does the dishes? Because this primitive part of our brain has been programmed since birth to be triggered when our attachment needs aren’t getting met. In other words, we feel safe when mom is giving us food and shelter and love, and an alarm sounds when our needs are not getting met…because ultimately, an infant dies if a caregiver does not meet their needs. Fast forward a few decades and the kind of attachment bond we have with our romantic partner mirrors the attachment we had with our primary caregivers. When that bond is threatened, the alarm sounds and we fear for our lives.

We all know that a fight with our significant other is most likely not a life or death situation. So what we need to do is override our reptilian brain’s message and tell it to keep calm (and fight on). But fight in a different way: not as if we’re reptiles, or helpless infants, fighting to save our lives, but calmly and with all those great faculties that come with the more evolved parts of our brains: the ability to be loving, empathic, generous, curious, caring, gentle, rational, and thoughtful.

Love & The Limbic Brain

Enter the limbic system. This is the part of the brain responsible for our emotional life. It’s the part of us that distinguishes mammals as more evolved than reptiles; that makes us want to have dogs for companions more so than crocodiles; and that makes falling in love so delicious and heartbreak so painful.

When we hold hands and look at each other with soft, loving eyes, we trigger a beautiful process called limbic resonance. Limbic resonance is the attunement of one person’s internal state to another’s. It’s the mindreading of the emotional system—emotion reading if you will. Limbic resonance is how a mother knows what her baby needs. It’s what makes it possible for a flock of birds to fly together as one…the whole flock turning left with no particular bird in charge. When we are in limbic resonance with someone we love, we intuit their internal state automatically.

Importance of reading others

Since birth, we have been practicing reading people– their facial expressions, the look in their eyes, their energy. Why? It’s a survival skill leading to safety and belonging but more importantly, to gobs of information about the all important internal state of another. We underestimate the importance of reading others, but we also know that those who are good at it are successful: better parents are attuned to their kids, better business owners attuned to their clients, better orators attuned to their audience. But this skill is a forgotten one when it comes to romantic love. When we fight with our significant others, we often tune them out instead of tuning them in.

When we choose to tune them in instead, we have the opportunity to understand them more deeply. For example, the truth about why I get upset when the dishes aren’t done isn’t about the dishes at all. It’s that it reminds me of my chaotic, messy house growing up due to my mom’s alcoholism…and it leaves me feeling yucky because it stirs up the old implicit memory of what my life was like at that time. When my partner understands that about me, he’s much more likely to do the dishes to help me heal the wound left from my neglectful mother. When we understand our partner’s humanness…their vulnerability, their emotional bruises…then the work of the couple becomes about healing rather than fighting.

So, you choose. You can fight like reptiles, unconsciously fighting just to stay alive. Or you can choose to breathe deeply, take your sweetheart’s hands in yours, look lovingly at him or her with soft eyes, and bolster your connection through limbic resonance. When we are resonating with each other, we remember that we are safe and that we love each other. Our impulse to protect ourselves by attacking the other is forgotten and our impulse to be tenderly caring returns. In limbic resonance, we have the ability to correct the reptilian brain’s mistake: I am not in danger, I am in love and I want to stay in love.

Is There an Upside to Infidelity?

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Can An Affair Actually Save Your Marriage?

Let me clarify right away that I never condone affairs. However, if an affair has happened, and you’re left wondering “what next?,” the good news is that affair recovery work can absolutely lead to a stronger, healthier marriage than there was before.

When an affair (or worse yet, multiple affairs) is discovered, it may feel like your house has burned to the ground or been swallowed up by an earthquake. Indeed, an affair is a deep rupture in the relationship. Everything you thought you could count on suddenly is gone. The foundation you trusted is in ashes at your feet. It’s as if the sun didn’t rise in the east one day and you’re left shaken and baffled: how is this possible? Not only does an affair instantly call into question beliefs about your marriage and partner, but even more fundamentally, you may start to question your own identity. Feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt and self-recrimination are common. Meanwhile, you’re in the middle of a trauma and the one person you should be turning to for support is the one who started the fire.

Do you walk away? Do you rebuild the house? Do you move to another city and start over?

Do you walk away

In the first few days or weeks, it’s far too soon to know. First, take care of your basic needs. Gather yourself as best you can, get support from friends and family, and find a way to get emotionally regulated if you have fallen apart. Take time to cry and time to use your resources to gain strength. By resources, I mean whatever helps you in difficult times– meditation, breath work, music, prayer, nature, moving your body, connecting with trusted friends, family, or professional helpers. Take some space from your partner if it helps. Ask the questions you simply must need to know the answer to and then stop. It’s rarely helpful to ask for details about the affair(s). If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or acute distress disorder (a disruption of normal thinking and feeling following a trauma), know that you are not alone in having a big reaction to discovering an affair. Get the help you need.

What next?

The next step is to decide whether to attempt to repair the relationship. Both of you must commit to the process of repair and be prepared to take ownership for ways that you have harmed the relationship. While only one person is responsible for having ultimately made the choice to have an affair, both of you are responsible for contributing to the climate of the relationship that left it vulnerable to an infidelity. (If this concept is not sitting well with you, please read my article I’m sorry, too: The role of the hurt partner in recovering from an affair).

Finding the right therapist to guide you through the process of recovery is critical. Search for someone with experience and training specific to affair recovery. Ask questions such as, “Do you have a specific process for couples recovering from an affair?” Find someone you both feel comfortable with and challenged by. If either of you feels shamed or humiliated, find someone else. The attitude of the therapist should be something like this: “All humans struggle with love and connection. Mistakes were made, but that does not make you a bad person. Let’s hear this and learn from it together.”

Learn your strengths and weaknesses

Then you begin sorting through the rubble to learn how your house was at risk for fire. As you sift through the layers, you both discover things about yourself, your partner and your relationship that you did not know. You learn to connect the dots between earlier experiences—in your marriage, in earlier relationships, and even in childhood—and the factors that culminated in the great fire. In the process, you get clear about both your strengths and your weaknesses as a couple. And you learn some things crucial to a healthy marriage: do we both have the capacity for deep self-reflection and remorse, even when it hurts? Are we both open and willing to change ourselves, to learn the lessons inherent in painful situations? Do we have room in our hearts for making amends and forgiving consciously and deeply?

Learn your strengths and weaknesses

Sometimes the answer is no, and it becomes clear that rebuilding the relationship is too fraught with danger because one of you is not willing or able to take on the project wholeheartedly. In that case, a therapist can guide you through a healthy ending. Even if you decide to end the relationship, it’s worth the effort to learn and heal as much as you can, so you don’t carry the pain and trauma with you.

If the answer is yes, the work will culminate with amends-making. Importantly, note that, like rebuilding a house, it’s a process. Superficial asking for and granting of forgiveness is as dangerous as building your house on sand. Planning and preparation is imperative. Having an experienced and wise leader in charge is key. And doing it right is a better choice than rushing through it, skimping and cutting corners, or making surface repairs. While it is difficult to experience the full range of big feelings that are part of this work, the process of learning how to sit with, learn from, and transform these feelings is a worthy endeavor that can fortify the spirit and your relationship.

The ideas of making amends and forgiveness are important to explore. Some people believe in “forgive and forget.” Some people believe that forgiving someone is condoning or excusing their behavior. Others believe that penance earns absolution. None of these ideas are useful in healing a marriage.

“You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting” (to quote a Mary Oliver poem)

Rather than embodying the roles of victim and perpetrator, both partners need to look at the ways pain has crept in and taken up residence in your marriage. Both of you have known this, and now it’s time to take responsibility for healing it and replacing the pain of disconnect with compassionate truth telling, rebuilding connection and trust, and learning how to tend to the marriage differently to keep it safe.

Making amends

Healthy amends making is a process of coming to understand exactly how the unthinkable came to be. What were the myriad contributing factors, both internally and externally, that ultimately led to the decision to have an affair? Sometimes people will say, “I don’t know, it just happened.” It never just happened. Recognizing exactly what disappointments, negative beliefs, escape mechanisms, and failures to “show up” in the marriage were part of the recipe for disaster is the unraveling that has the potential to both heal and strengthen the relationship. Making amends is about finding the deep levels of understanding exactly in what ways both of you hurt your partner and feeling true regret for your actions, steeped in the understanding of how even a good person can make bad decisions.

When skin is cut, the tissue of the scar that forms to heal it is stronger. Similarly, a couple that dives in deep to heal after the trauma of an affair can emerge more conscious, more connected, and more committed than ever before. Sometimes a trauma viewed as a wake-up call is the doorway to a richer, deeper, happier life together.