Most of us are defensive in close relationships. If we’re not, we have to interact with people who are. It is the relational disease of our culture and the one that imprisons and destroys intimacy, and prevents love and connection between partners and friends. Why are we so defensive and what are we so afraid of? And… how do we make it stop?
Recently I witnessed a married couple interact in a way that was not only tragic but tragically familiar. In this example, the woman was telling her husband that something he had done had hurt her, just in that moment. The pain was evident in her face, and tears were coming. His immediate response was to angrily accuse her of (frequently) doing the same thing to him. ‘How dare she feel upset when she was guilty of exactly same behavior.’ She then began defending herself, needing him to understand that she was not a person who would ever do such a thing to someone she supposedly cared about. Without responding to her claims, he moved on to his next defense/attack. If she was hurt by what he had done, it was because she was overly sensitive. It was her problem not his. Desperate now, the woman pleaded her case, explaining why it was reasonable for her to feel pain—that “anyone” would feel the way she did. She was not overly sensitive—his behavior was insensitive. Her case was a good one but he didn’t hear it, and couldn’t hear it. Sadly, with her original pain rejected and attacked, she now had a second layer of pain and misunderstanding to contend with, a second layer of feeling unknown and un-loved as a result of the interaction. In the end, nothing was resolved, no connection was formed, and eventually they went their separate ways.
On a practical level, at the moment when her husband claimed that she “did the same thing” to him, it would have been wise for her to bring his attention back to the present and to the experience that right now was causing her suffering. She might have asked him to point out her “doing it” when it actually happened, to request that he not use it as a weapon against her, but rather as an opportunity for healing his pain about it too. This small insertion might have kept the dialogue from devolving into a battle for rightness. Unfortunately she also got caught up in defending herself and thus lost sight of the original suffering for which she was needing his attention. As an aside, I must say that I have never quite understood the “You do it too” argument. If the same behavior upset him when it happened (to him), why then would that invalidate his wife’s pain or justify his actions? In truth, husband and wife seemed to be on the same side, both feeling un-heard and unknown in the relationship. Blinded by their identities however, neither could see it.
The interaction was tragic and painful to witness, not only in its unkindness, but also in its lost opportunity. Instead of truth and pain serving as a doorway—an opening into intimacy and understanding—truth and pain were used to inflict more pain. Instead of easing their loneliness, the truth brought them deeper into isolation.
At no point in the exchange did the man pause to hear his partner’s suffering. In fact, it appeared that just allowing her pain to exist, letting it be true for her, presented (in his mind) a threat to his very survival. He did not believe that both he and his wife’s experience could co-exist. In order to survive then, it meant that her suffering would have to be destroyed, or at least radically undermined. It was nothing less than a fight for existence.
While this exchange may sound like something that should have happened between eight year olds, in truth, its sort is more prevalent with adults. As compared with children, adults have far more complex and sedimentized self-stories (to defend) and more rigid and firmly entrenched egos (to protect). So too, adults are more attached to and identified with their past hurts, and thus more vigilant about preventing them from re-occurring. Like a perfect storm, all of these factors then come together to create the defensive interactions that pervade and destroy grown up relationships.
So often, when we learn that someone we love is hurting, our immediate response is to start fighting for ourselves, but not to attend to, comfort or understand their hurt. We set out to prove that the other is wrong for feeling the way they feel, even though it is the way they feel. We have been taught that in the face of pain or conflict, what’s most important is that we survive as the one who is justified and right. Fundamentally, we do not view pain as something that is safe to engage with or that can lead to growth or healing. Instead, we see pain as something to survive and defeat.
When someone tells us that we caused them pain, we get angry at them. Often, the more hurt they are, the more hurtful and vicious we are in response. It is strange behavior really. And yet, it is not so strange when we consider that we have been conditioned to believe that who we are is our self-story, the carefully constructed version of me that we have assimilated over a lifetime. And simultaneously, we are conditioned to believe that our self can be altered, harmed and ultimately annihilated by another’s experience of us, particularly when that experience is inconsistent with our self-story. No wonder we are so afraid and defensive when conflict arises! While our conditioning has taught us that who we are is remarkably fragile, in truth, who we are is fiercer than anything we know.
The next time the opportunity to know another’s experience presents, try out what it feels like to listen without strategizing to keep yourself positively positioned—without defending the story of who you are and what you have or have not done. If only for a moment, fire yourself as the client of your own public relations campaign—surrender your title as your own brand manager. Connection is not born from successfully proving that you are a good person, coming out looking like a good person, or being right. When you make use of another’s suffering to champion your identity, you indeed emerge as a champion me. Despite all the effort however, your true identity remains isolated. You go home with your badge of rightness, your champion ego, while the experience of love and connection are lost.
It is counter-intuitive really… the less we defend our wellbeing, the more well we feel. When we stop trying to protect me (at last) me feels safe and without the need for protection. We are conditioned to believe that strength means coming out on top and winning the fight. But in fact, real strength means having the courage to put our swords and shields down, and to risk being open and un-defended. When we truly listen to another, without our self-story in the way, we not only offer the greatest gift one can offer to another human being, but we get to jettison the shackles and burden of this fragile identity and realize that under all the defending, who we are—our real self—is love itself, which is indestructible, and so fierce as to need no defense at all.