I Can’t Stop Defending Myself

Dear GoodTherapy.org,
My marriage is all but gone. My wife and I are on our 3rd therapist. Defensiveness is a major issue for me. My wife and therapists have said so. Its true. I have very strong defenses, and am prone to react through attacking. Typically the exchange will go: Wife, to therapist, "After our last session, James became angry...he said it was because I didn't defend him to you when you told him he was filtering what I said as sarcasm, when I really was being sarcastic. Even after I admitted it later. Then he became even angrier and couldn't see the value in anything you or the other 2 therapists have been saying. Then he called me a @$#!." My part starts with feeling attacked as I listen to her recall this episode. I feel she selectively recalls the events, downplays her own very hostile behavior (such as failing to seriously acknowledge how letting the therapist take me to task for misinterpreting what she says in session is destructive). You can probably guess the rest. I spend valuable session time trying to defend myself by challenging the factual errors and trying unsuccessfully to balance the dynamic by taking ownership of the issues I need to and challenging what I feel is destructive behavior my wife engaging in. The therapist then takes me to task for acting like a victim and being defensive. He then validates my wife's claims, (i.e., yes, the problems in this relationship lie with James' defensiveness). As usual, I end up feeling crushed. Angry that my concerns aren't given what I feel is appropriate validation. I then have to sit through more lecturing, during which I am struggling to get my emotions under control while trying to stay with the therapist and not zone out or appear to be angry or defiant. The whole situation makes me want to cry. Really. My wife and I used to have such a wonderful, close relationship. I really do know that I have a defensive streak that's a mile wide. At this point, though, I'm just not able to recognize when I am being defensive versus appropriately defending myself. I also worry that I'll ingrain this behavior in my young daughter. I'm not even sure what I'm asking, or if I'm even asking for anything at all. I do know that for the sake of my daughter and for myself, I need to make some serious changes and quickly. Life's too short to keep living this way. Thank you for reading this. - Defensive & Disappointed
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Dear Defensive & Disappointed,

Thank you for sharing your experience.

Nothing is more vital than learning to have productive dialogue with a partner; with positive communication skills any issue can be worked through in a healthy manner. The first step in achieving this is gaining insight into your part of the problem. Without that, the conversation gets stuck in anger, blame and attack-defend.

The recognition of your “defensiveness and anger” as part of the communication difficulty is a significant first step in moving towards healthy dialogue. When emotions are heightened, the cognitive part of the brain becomes less functional and our responses are more emotional than logical.

When you respond defensively and angrily to your wife, all she sees and hears is your anger. She doesn’t hear the content of what you are saying; she doesn’t see the sadness, pain and hurt that is right under that anger.

For you and your wife to have a productive dialogue about the issues, the two of you must be in a “centered state,” i.e. you may feel emotional but you are able to contain the feelings while talking and actively listening with the cognitive part of the brain. Each of you learning to soothe and contain your own anger and defensiveness is the key. A therapist can teach you deep breathing or other relaxation techniques to practice becoming centered. If feelings escalate during the conversation, call a time out, soothe your own feelings and come back to the conversation.

Another key is to look underneath your anger and ask yourself, “What other feelings do I have?” We tend to lead with our anger so we don’t have to feel vulnerable and weak since talking about the underlying sadness and fear may be scary or uncomfortable. However, this is a big part of the solution – to face your fears and allow the softer emotions to emerge. Unless she is detached, your wife will be drawn “towards you” when you speak about your hurt, sadness, pain and fear. And it is very likely that she will share her more vulnerable feelings. When couples meet on this deeply emotional plane, they connect more lovingly and start working as a team.

You mention that your wife selectively recalls events; we all do this since each of us see and remember events from our perspective, through our own filters. The goal of therapy is not to determine whose perspective is right or wrong since you are both “right” from your respective chairs; it’s to help each of you understand the other’s perspective, to learn so much about how your partner sees things that you could go into court and “make her case.” It doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with her perception; it just means you understand her point of view.

Instead of defending against her perception – be curious about her perception, e.g. “So you think I meant to hurt your feelings? I didn’t see it that way. Help me understand more about why you saw it like that.” Keep asking questions till you truly comprehend her thoughts and feelings. Remember her intention is not to attack you; her intention is to express her thoughts and feelings and have you hear and understand them.

Then it is your turn to be heard. Ask her to listen to your perception, i.e. “I would like you to hear the way I saw the event so you can understand it from my chair.” Only then can the two of you determine what changes each needs to make and join together to problem solve.

When you master this way of communicating you will be able to discuss anything. It takes patience and practice but it is a skill that anyone can learn.

It’s difficult to feel like your therapist isn’t hearing you and is taking sides. Ask for some individual time with the therapist so he can hear your perceptions and discuss how you can best present this to your wife.

Hope this is helpful.

Warm regards,
Lori

Lori Hollander
Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, co-founded Relationships Work, a private practice and online resources center, alongside her husband Bob Hollander. As a team, Lori and Bob work with couples in crisis and those who want a deeper connection.
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  • Matthew Eison

    Matthew Eison

    June 19th, 2012 at 3:01 PM

    First step is always self realization. However is there any thoughts on how to make this a faster realization. I find myself simply hitting the proverbial wall over and over and over and well over again before I can fully understand what others are seeing in me?

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