David and Stacy have a real challenge when it comes to communicating. Neither of them ever feel they are truly heard by the other. When they discuss points of conflict, they automatically default to arguing mode; they completely miss the opportunity to share their true feelings with each other. When they talk, defensiveness rules. They refuse to admit responsibility for causing their spouse pain, and instead, they place blame back on the other.
These sort of statements characterize their conflict:
“No, I’m not…”
“That’s not true; I never…”
“I wouldn’t act that way if you didn’t…”
“Sure; like you’ve never done the same thing…”
“You’re making way too big a deal out of this…”
After a while, statements like this ratchet their conflict up into hyperdrive, and then the name-calling, anger-spewing, door-slamming, hate-texting, mother-calling, revenge-seeking craziness ensues.
So, why do we get defensive? It’s a reasonable question because we all do it—even people like me who don’t think they get defensive…we do it too. Here’s the key… defensiveness stems from a view of conflict that is based on a win-or-lose model. Think about the defensive team in a football game. What is their mission? Well, the other team is trying to take something away from them… namely, the ability to win the ballgame. The defensive team will be viewed as successful if they make life miserably difficult for the offense. They are to keep the other team from “winning” and to keep their team from “losing.”
We’ve become accustomed to looking at conflict as a competition. We see it as two people bringing their tactical approach to the gridiron in the hopes of “winning” the game. Since, in this win-or-lose model, the goal is to lose as little as possible, there is no room for compromise or give-and-take. Imagine you’re watching a game of football, basketball, hockey… whatever; you pick. Imagine that there’s a disputed call. Can you picture both coaches sitting down to tea with the referee to discuss how to compromise on the call so that everyone can benefit? Of course not… that’s not what they were hired to do. Those coaches were hired to make sure their team wins at any cost. They won’t budge an inch… they want it all.
So Stacy comes to David and says “I wish you would unglue yourself from that TV set once and a while and ask me out on a date… like you used to. I feel like all you care about anymore is the couch and that remote control.”
He hears her say: I want to take away your free time. I want you to get rid of your TV, miss your favorite shows, and spend the rest of your life helplessly meandering the aisles of Bed, Bath, and Beyond forced to comment on your feelings about floral patterned bedspreads.
His response: Nag, nag, nag. Geez, you got something else to complain about? Go ahead. Tell me how I’m doing everything wrong. Anyhow, I do take you out. It’s just not good enough for you.
When David heard Stacy mention that she wasn’t happy with him watching TV at the expense of their time together, all David could hear was that he was about to lose, and lose big. He mounts a strong defense, which effectively sends the evening into anger orbit. She gets mad at his unkind response and proceeds to vent her anger in vibrant tones, and he shuts down on her, which just causes her to pursue him with even greater tenacity.
Result? She doesn’t get her date night; he doesn’t get to watch TV. This is the typical result of defensiveness. Both parties are so afraid to let the other person win that they both lose. Like many things in life, our “natural” response—going with what feels like the right thing to do—can bring about the exact result we were trying to avoid.
There’s one other factor at play here… because David doesn’t want to lose, the last thing he would consider doing right now is to take responsibility for his actions. Like a person on trial that’s been coached by his lawyer not to admit blame, David goes into this conversation knowing that he doesn’t plan to apologize for something or admit he’s wrong. However, as long as he stays defensive and refuses to take responsibility, Stacy is left to believe that he doesn’t understand her pain, and that he will continue to hurt her despite her initiative to discuss it with him.
How could things have gone differently? Certainly, Stacy could have been kinder in her approach. It would have likely started the conversation on a better note. But in this case, let’s think about how David might have invested some personal energy in trying to interpret what she meant by what she was saying. After all, Stacy was doing what we all do when we complain to our spouse… expressing her personal pain and asking for change. What did she mean by what she said?
What she was actually saying: I miss you. I want to be connected and close to you. When we connect I feel valued, but when you spend all your free time doing other things, I feel unimportant and alone. Ask me to do something. Please. I would love to say yes.
The truth is, David loves Stacy, and while he doesn’t constantly feel the need to find ways to connect with her (which is typical for guys), he enjoys connecting with her very much. In fact, he stands to gain (to “win”) something here. When she feels connected and close to him, her spirit is lifted, and she shows him kindness, warmth, and openness that touches his heart and leaves him feeling desired, valued, and respected.
This is the underlying truth in conflict… many times we both have the potential to win. Think about it like this: if your spouse has an issue, you have an issue. If you can do something to help them with that issue, you are simultaneously helping yourself. Because you are married, anything that really impacts your spouse will impact you. You know this because there have perhaps been times when your spouse was angry but not at you. You still felt some of the fall-out of that anger. Or perhaps your spouse went through a season of depression. You didn’t cause the depression, but you felt it. If your spouse has a problem, even if it is with you, you’re paying part of the price for that problem. If you help solve it (meaning if you are open to examining yourself honestly and being willing to make necessary changes) you will not only be living up to your calling as a sacrificial spouse (Eph 5:21), but you will also be “winning” as well.
So for all of us, including the guy writing this blog, it’s important to remember that just because your spouse brings an issue to your attention, it doesn’t mean they are trying to make you “lose everything.” It may be an opportunity for both husband and wife to walk away winners. And that is a beautiful thing.
Want to learn more about how to communicate better with your spouse in conflict? Get Jonathan’s free eBook, “Fight-Proof Your Marriage”.
Author’s Postscript: David and Stacy are an imaginary couple. They represent a mosaic of many couples I’ve worked with over the past several years.