Dr. A. Lynn Scoresby
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Criticism, Defensiveness, and Marital Problems

November 14th, 2007 by Lynn


A common marital problem could be solved if more of us understood a different way of thinking about ourselves and our partner. For instance, most people think of others in terms of their personality traits such as ambitious, kind, and etc. We also often think of personality traits as fairly permanent and so when we get to know someone we often think of them in terms of having fixed qualities they will always show or display. When there is frustration, conflict, or other problems it is easy for us to think of the other person as having some negative personality quality and once that conclusion is reached, repeated experiences with it typically leads to a fixed idea of the other person. If unchecked it is easy to go one step further. The conclusion that the other person has a negative personality quality is often followed by contempt or condemnation which author and researcher John Gottman suggests are the most common precursors to divorce.

Let’s take another point of view. Consider the idea that a person’s behavior is usually the result of a given situation and may not be a permanent trait. This means that what a spouse or partner might say or do is likely heavily influenced by the actual situation as they perceive or view their relationship. This does not mean that past experiences have no influence. It means instead that a person selects a form of behavior which is a combination of past experience and current perception. It is something both people are helping to create. The most obvious answer to the question, “why do you do that?” is a combination of background experience and something in the current relationship which both share in the responsibility for.

“I am somehow causing part of this,” is openly acknowledging a share of the responsibility for what exists and is an accurate recognition that each person is involved even though they may not know exactly how. There are exceptions to this. When a partner is abusive, unfaithful, or incapable of participating in some way his or her experience is likely the greater influence than the situation. Having said that, the marital partner still has some responsibility for handling the consequences of what the other person does. In most cases, excepting extreme behavior, accepting some part of the responsibility for what happens in a relationship removes criticism and reduces blaming. Yet, many cannot or will not do that and something else happens.

When a person is unsatisfied, believing the problem is being caused by the partner who has some flawed personality trait, he or she often resorts to criticism in an attempt to make improvements. Criticism of this type typically does not produce anything good and often perpetuates the problem. Here is why. Throughout history and in most cultures, marriage is a context or situation where many different forms of love could and should exist. In our own culture, people’s decision to marry or live together is often because of the “love,” they feel or share. There are other compatibility issues of course, but for most people love feelings and displays are usually connected to their intimate relationships or marriage.

Those with a background of loving and being loved tend to adjust better to these relationships. But, the idea that marriage is a context for love sets the stage for the idea that when one expects to be loved, liked, and cared for, the absence of love would be considered more significant than other situations and the presence of criticism would acquire even greater, though harsher, import. Expecting to love and be loved but instead being regularly criticized, or condemned, usually creates a mental and emotional condition labeled “defensiveness.”

When a person has been criticized and hurt and then displays defensiveness he or she may withdraw from conversation and association plus do and say other less successful things. Many common displays of defensiveness include being unable or unwilling to reflect and introspect, the inability to understand their own feelings and make accurate judgments about the feelings of others, to feel scared or threatened around the person or similar persons who hurt them, accusing others, combative verbal behavior, belittling, insensitivity to others, blaming, explosive anger, excessive control, and rigidity.

When these conditions exist the defensiveness often motivates people to think they are being victimized at the same time they are inflicting pain on someone else. Abusive parents often blame children for causing their anger. A defensive husband blames his wive for blaming him, failing to provide enough comfort, sex, warmth, tenderness, and etc. A defensive woman may withdraw and reject her husband, consider his treatment of her to be unkind, wilt and submit to his criticisms in order to placate him, and/or display passivity when he wants action.

When love could and should exist between people, its absence is typically not neutral and therefore produces nothing. Its absence is often filled with criticism and anger which hurts and motivates people to protect themselves. Once self protection is a greater motivation than the giving and receiving love, more problems typically take place. Seeking professional help may be necessary but the solution will always include learning or relearning how to communicate love and how to receive it when we are in the situation where love is expected.

Drop some of your thoughts in the comments.

Posted in Marriage

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