Synopsis: This mini-love-lesson starts with discussing offensive defensiveness; goes on to how we “see through a glass darkly”; and take offense when none is meant; and ends with “when the best defense is no defense”.
Offensive DefensivenessLots of defensiveness comes across as being quite offensive and, therefore, is anti-loving. People frequently become defensive when they feel blamed, threatened, unjustly accused, putdown, judged, rejected, at a disadvantage, unfairly treated or wronged.
Often frustration, urgency and anger wells up inside them and spills out into the way they express their defense of themselves. Mentally they are trying to present their understandings, reasons, perceptions and memories to back up, prove or excuse their version of the issues at hand. Emotionally they are upset and it shows.
With urgency, frustration and perhaps anger showing in the way they say what they say, they are perceived as attacking. Frequently this triggers a defensive counter-attack. When that happens we get two people who are increasingly, defensively offensive in the way they are treating each other. Both are trying to prove that their version of things is right and the other one’s is wrong or that they are more okay than the other person who is attacking them. They think they are just defending themselves and they have to defend because they are under attack. This often means that no one really is listening to the other one but rather they are trying to come up with the next thing to prove themselves right and the other one wrong. None of this is helpful to the processes of love!
Seeing through a Glass Darkly“I know I’m right and you’re wrong, and that’s all there is to it”. “The way I remember things is accurate and yours is not”. “Your thinking is stupid and you ought to be able to see that my way is the one, true and only way to see things”. “ I’m telling the truth so you must be lying”. “I did not do what you accuse me of, and how could you even think that I did”. “That was not the way it happened”. “You must be crazy to think that way”. These are the kinds of defensive statements that are easily seen as being offensive rather than simply defensive. They often emerge from a mindset that does not fully understand that other people’s minds work quite differently than their own and, therefore, see and understand things differently than they do.
Are you fully aware that no two minds see anything in exactly the same way? Are you fully aware that no two people ever remember anything exactly the same way? Are you fully aware that memories change over time? Are you fully aware that our current needs and wants alter and influence what and how we perceive our world. An example of this is a hungry person and someone who has just eaten, driving down the street will see the street differently. The hungry person is likely to see many more signs for restaurants while the person who has just eaten may see none at all.
How your loved ones perceive the world, remember it and understand it will never be exactly the same as your way. This means that when you are talking to them they will understand your actions, words and everything else at least a little and sometimes a lot differently than you do. Some of their perceptions and understandings may upset you. When that happens you may think they are upsetting you on purpose, or they are trying to attack you, prove you wrong, insult you, put you down or just get you upset.
When you perceive their words or actions that way you are likely to become defensive in an offensive, anti-loving way. That produces disagreements, arguments, fights and other problematic results that can be avoided if handled differently and more lovingly. When we expect other people to think like we do, we see into their minds and hearts very much like looking through a very dark glass. We miss a lot and we get only blurry dark images which are easily misinterpreted.
Taking Offense When None Is MeantConclusions based on misinterpretation are another way that people feel demeaned, insulted or disrespected, often leading to them becoming defensive. “How rude. He went right to bed after our company left and he didn’t even ask me if I wanted his help in cleaning up. He must not respect me at all. I must be totally unimportant to him. Maybe he really doesn’t love me anymore. If he is going to treat me that way I’m going to stop having sex with him. I guess I will have to be cold and distant to protect myself”.
The person who said this got around to realizing she had not asked him to stay and help her. The next day she angrily asked him if she had requested him to stay what would he have done? He said he would have been glad to stay and help and keep her company, and he actually thought she wanted some time to be by herself after the company left. She did not believe him and they had a fight. Later they apologized to each other realizing they had destructively non-communicated. Sadly many people believe their first conclusion instead of ‘checking it out’ and hearing how the other person perceived the situation.
Learn to say things like “maybe I took you the wrong way, did you mean to say something that might make me feel bad?”. “I think I’m hearing that you’re mad at me or maybe just upset, but I could be making a misinterpretation. I think I need to hear you better, so could you tell me what you’re feeling and thinking so I really can understand?” “Could you tell me a little more clearly what you’re thinking and feeling?” These ‘check it out’ questions and statements can avoid a lot of the disharmony caused by offensive defensiveness.
When No Defense Is the Best DefenseWhen you feel attacked it is entirely possible that you are being attacked. Then again, it might be that someone just wants you to show care by kindly listening to their cathartic release of bad feelings. Maybe they just want to know they have been truly heard and are not all alone in their feelings. If you jump to your own defense, giving reasons and explanations that counter what they are saying maybe you are not really listening to their emotions – which often is what they really want. If you defend yourself with a counterattack they certainly won’t feel lovingly heard or dealt with.
The more loving thing to do usually is to help them get said whatever has been building up inside them and is now spilling out – often this means looking at them with love, saying responsive things like “I’m sorry you feel . . . (whatever is appropriate)” or “I can see that really upset you” or “Ahh!” After that there may be room for what you might want to add but by then it may not be necessary. If your own thinking tells you that they are wrong, and you have to prove them wrong and then everything will be settled, you are likely to be wrong about that. If a loved one is upset with you try to lovingly listen instead of defending yourself and you are much more likely to get a good outcome.
Of course, this is hard to do when something inside you is commanding you to defend yourself and is saying “if they just knew my truth they would see things like I see things and everything would get better”. Has that approach ever really worked for you?. Not until they get their upset feelings released is a loved one’s hearing system likely to start functioning. It’s like they have to get something out of their system before they’ll have room to put anything new in. So, if you just show carrying interest instead of defensiveness you are much more likely to get a better outcome.
Even though you feel an urgent need to show them the error of their thinking and how they are unjustly attacking you, don’t do it. Try just listening with care. You do not have to agree, or accept or acquiesce to anything. You just have to stay okay enough to really hear what your loved one is saying and feeling. Getting defensive really gets in the way of that.
It also is important to know that when you defend yourself by saying a lot of words to a loved one, while they are still trying to get their thoughts and feelings out, you may be doing something which gets called “feeding their fire”. The more you feed their fire the more likely you are to get burned. You might want to learn about ‘reflective listening’, ‘active listening’ and loving listening which tend to work a lot better then defending your point of view, your version of what happened, or your ego.
After things settle down because you have been non-defensive and have done some good, loving listening to your upset loved one, they may be able to listen to you.
Remember to say what you have got to say with loving tones of voice and democratically, not judgmentally or in an autocratic, dogmatic or dictatorial style. It usually works best to mix a lot of love into your truths. Loving looks and sounds, using terms of endearment and maybe some affectionate touch can make a world of difference. Not to mix love into your way of expressing what you want to say to a loved one can result in a lot of contention and disharmony.
Please remember, in a love relationship all things can be said with love and are better said with love.
As always – Go and Grow with Love
Dr. J. Richard Cookerly
Who is the best listener you know, and are you copying them?