When Love Brings Pain - #3

Defensiveness makes things worse til you know how to stop it

Posted Feb 24, 2015

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Love is letting down your guard, and defensiveness is snapping it back up. You have good reason to be on guard sometimes, but defensiveness doesn’t get you what you want. Your partner quickly pulls up their guard too, and seconds later a good relationship is off the rails.

You can protect your relationship from the fast frazzle by managing your defensiveness. Here are three simple strategies:

1. Know your cortisol switch.
When your cortisol surges, you are a different person. You are a gazelle who smells a lion. You don’t intend to be, but your brain is designed to act fast when anything resembles past harm. Whatever hurt you before carved a pathway in your brain. When you see a familiar threat, electricity zips to your cortisol and you are stoked to face the monster. No wonder your partner reacts! When you know that your defensiveness is caused by old wiring, you can stop and let the cortisol metabolize before you act. 

You may think you don’t have a cortisol switch, and your partner shouldn’t have one either. It's easier to accept your inner mammal when you appreciate the job it does. When two chimpanzees calmly groom with each other, each has experienced a painful bite from another chimpanzee. Grooming is a huge act of trust for animals who are known to bite each other’s fingers off when they get mad. Your ancestors survived by reacting quickly to the anger of others. Your cortisol system is inherited from them.

2. Self-soothing helps you accept and be accepted
Relationship coach Jena Amarsi says, "Self-soothing keeps you afloat when your partner does the very human things he or she will do. If you react to you partner in a harsh, unforgiving way, you’re as much 'the problem' as your partner is. If you react in a kind, caring manner, your partner may still be grumpy, but it’ll be much easier for them to crawl out of their funk while you’re holding your ground. Allowing your partner’s mood to negatively affect your own will only serve to make the problem much worse." I enjoyed Jena’s video on this subject.

Sometimes your partner engages in unacceptable behaviors and you have to react. If you intend to stay in the relationship and work together to overcome their challenge, managing your defensiveness will help. In the video below, Jena suggests complaining without criticizing (without expressing contempt or disgust). “Your self-soothing skills give you the strength to act differently in situations you know have the potential to produce that increase in cortisol in you or your partner. You can improve your relationship dynamic one situation at at time through small changes in your actions and reactions.” Her website, InLoveInformed is a great source of tools for lasting love through science. (In case you don't speak Italian, Amarsi means to love each other.)

3. Strengthen your spine.
Defensiveness is external armor. Lobsters have a strong external skeleton, but we mammals have a strong inner skeleton. We are to meant to have a strong spine instead of external armor. If you seek love by trying to perfect your exterior, your good qualities can get stuck inside the armor. This great insight comes from Ken Page's book Deeper Dating: How to Drop the Games of Seduction and Discover the Power of Intimacy.

Ken Page, with permission
Source: Ken Page, with permission

He says we are often attracted to people we feel criticized by. Perhaps we hope to win them over by perfecting ourselves. But we often end up feeling weaker instead. The alternative is simple: focus on people who appreciate your gifts. That's hard to come by, you may say. But you could be overlooking the appreciation you have in your rush to win over people you think disapprove of you. You may even exaggerate that disapproval, and your flaws, in your mammalian quest for social alliances. A good tool for changing that is Ken Page's new Deeper Dating Course.

When you’re feeling defensive, part of you wants to run and part of your wants to stay. Part of you wants to be heard, and part of you fears you will not be heard. I like this advice from Rita Watson on getting heard in moments of anger. We mammals are always trying to feel safe, and looking for threats to our safety. Managing your mammal brain is the challenge that comes with the gift of life.