Relationships • Conflicts
How to Be Less Defensive in Love
If we had to make one generalisation about why relationships fail, it would be this: because of defensiveness. Defensiveness is behind the lion’s share of the failure of all relationships. The difficulty is that there is no way of escaping the sort of situations that can trigger a defensive response.
However sweet and fascinating two people might initially be, it is inescapable that they will also with time, and the birth of true intimacy, stumble upon aspects of one another’s characters that cannot help but generate difficulties and a degree of dismay. Each partner could be determined to be only kind, but the way that they, say, shell an egg, or leave the bathroom, or deal with their suitcase on returning from a trip, or handle the household keys, or tell an anecdote will gradually unleash powerful degrees of frustration or puzzlement in those who have to share their lives.
The problem starts when we, as partners, venture to air our responses. They might get angry or they might get sad but the underlying message is the same: being found in some way imperfect is entirely unacceptable and deeply contrary to the spirit of true love.
‘Love me for who I am’ is the fateful rallying cry of all lovers headed for disaster; it is in reality a monstrously unfair demand to be loved just as we are, given our panoply of faults, compulsions and immaturities. With a modicum of self-awareness and honesty, we should only ever expect to be loved for who we hope to be, for who we are at our best moments, for the good that is in us in a latent and yet not-realised state.
The spirit of true love should require that whenever there is feedback, we turn gratefully to our partner and ask for more, that we continuously search to access a better version of ourselves, that we see love as a classroom in which our lover can teach us one or two things about who we should become — rather than a burrow in which our existing errors can be endorsed and ratified.
A less-defended attitude isn’t a random gift; We begin to become less defensive when we take on board some of the following:
We can dare to admit our fear
Behind defensiveness, there is always a dread of being humiliated and abandoned. But a decent partner, if we let them know what we’re afraid of, will be moved by our tender desperation and hasty fear. And they should help us to see that what there is really to be afraid of now is not criticism, but an inability to accept its gentle manifestations with grace.
Criticism is normal
If love really required an absence of even the most minor flaws, no one could possibly qualify for a relationship. Yet in reality, we are love-worthy not because we are ever perfect, but because none of us ever can be.
Love isn’t fragile
In the defensive person’s mind, the smallest comment is like the small rockfall that announces an avalanche. There seems no way to trust that it really is just about how long pasta should be cooked, or the right way to make a bed; the underlying intention seems always to be to inflict a devastating wound and speed the entire relationship to a close. The defensive person has not had a chance to experience the robustness of love; how it is wholly possible to call someone the worst names in the lexicon and then, ten minutes later, to want to lie softly in their arms, tenderness having been renewed and reinvigorated by an opportunity to purge a given frustration. There can be ruptures — and repair. True love is resilient; it’s not destroyed by a detail but only ever by the way that a detail can’t be acknowledged and processed.
Defensiveness can be outgrown. When searching for a partner, we need to look out for someone who can join us in the heroic quest to recognise and overcome defensiveness. We might even raise this ambition on an early date (‘I’d like one day to move to the country, learn Spanish and, with a lover’s help, get over my defensiveness…’ we might declare by way of introduction to our goals). We could frame the attempt to listen to criticism without fury or hurt as belonging to one of life’s mightiest challenges — alongside sporting achievement or business success. Eventually, with a lot of effort, we could hope to reach a stage when a partner could point out with tact and humanity that we have bad breath or that our shoes don’t match our top and, rather than reacting as we have grown up to do, we could simply turn to them, smile benignly and say what flawed humans should always respond with when another member of the species deigns to help them to grow into a better version of themselves: thank you.