| A Better You |

Deflate the Defensiveness

Defensive people will try anything to protect their self-image and not show any “weakness.”

Abby Delouya

Having disagreements and differences in opinion are all normal parts of marriage. The issue isn’t if you engage in these more unpleasant interactions, it’s how you engage in them. Previously, I mentioned John and Julie Gottman’s “four horsemen” — four behaviors that lead to deep strife in a marriage: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.

One of those seems almost inborn to all of us; we can observe it early on in a person’s development. It might be the most natural go-to mechanism in our adult relationships: defensiveness.

Child A: You spilled the milk all over the desk! Now my drawing is wet!

Child B: Na-uh! You put your paper too close to my cup! You spilled my drink!

Wife: You left your coffee cup out and the rings left a mark on the new countertop!

Husband: Na-uh! I asked you where I should put the cup because the dishwasher was full. You didn’t take care of the dishes last night, and now I can’t properly clean up!”

The child’s response and the married adult’s response in the above scenarios aren’t that different; defensiveness is a very old and visceral part of our communication styles.

We get defensive when we feel we’re under attack. We may feel embarrassed, shamed, misunderstood, or blamed. Defensiveness puts the blame back on your spouse and effectively says, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” The issue with defensiveness is that it completely shuts down the other person. They aren’t seen or heard, and they’re made to feel like it’s their fault. Spoiler: Defensiveness is almost never successful. Usually, it leads to an escalation in conflict, and is a breeding ground for the other “horsemen” — all without solving the problem at hand.

Defensiveness is sometimes super overt, and sometimes just quiet enough that it’s hard to detect, but one spouse walks away feeling upset. Examples of defensive behavior are making excuses, deflecting blame, responding dramatically, and making false promises.

Defensive people will try anything to protect their self-image and not show any “weakness.” The root causes of defensiveness vary. Perfectionism, fear and insecurity, and learned behavior may play a role. Defensiveness may also be an attempt to avoid uncomfortable emotions like guilt, shame, or embarrassment.

Sometimes, we have a false belief that if we can prove that we were right or the other person was also wrong, we’ll be in less “trouble” with our spouse. This is where recalling the old quote: “To be kind is more important than to be right” can be useful. Receptive people are able to hear others express their needs, are open to constructive criticism, can admit to mistakes, and can be vulnerable and solution-focused.

It can be helpful to visualize any one interaction as a balloon being inflated. With each comment or criticism, a puff of air inflates the balloon. A defensive or accusatory comment inflates it further, and the argument escalates until the whole thing explodes with a loud bang. If we truly listen, seek clarification, take responsibility, and try to fix or help, then the scene will look very different. Validation and expressions of a willingness to change are like a gentle needle prick in the bottom of an oversized balloon, and all that air whooshes out, deflating the conflict.

Giving a defensive remark may feel better or necessary in the moment, but in the bigger picture, it only serves to escalate the conflict and deepen feelings of misunderstanding and frustration. Decide to take responsibility — you can always be “right” later if it’s relevant. In that moment, challenge yourself to offer validation, assistance, and kindness.

Abby Delouya is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice, specializing in trauma and addiction. Abby is also the COO and Director of Intake of Ray of Hope.


I Need Space

Zipora Schuck

A  universally accepted reason to cringe is when someone is just a little too close to you. Respecting the personal space of others is a crucial social skill that doesn’t involve talking or playing — it involves the distance between people. Children (and adults) get easily irritated with people who invade their personal space by standing too close or by touching their belongings without permission.

The easiest way to help children understand the right amount of distance is with a “personal measuring stick,” aka their outstretched arm. While personal space norms are subject to cultural fluctuations, we generally don’t feel comfortable if someone we don’t know well is standing closer than an arm’s length away when we are looking at them face to face.

What about acquaintances or classmates with whom we are friendly? Then the distance required face to face would be from right on top of the elbow to the fingertips. And for someone we’re very close with — a parent, sibling, or best friend — we measure from under the elbow to the fingertips. That doesn’t mean we want our children sticking out their hands as yardsticks as they approach others, but when we discuss it with them, or even practice and role-play, this is a way to help them conceptualize it.

Less space is needed between us when we’re standing side to side or front to back with another person, as those positions are less invasive. More space is always needed when we notice the other person taking a step back or moving away.

Making sure our children can respect this need in others is key to helping them be accepted socially. As an added benefit, children that become sensitive to the nuances of recognizing personal space are less likely to have their own boundaries infringed on inappropriately, as they will pull back when someone else gets too close.


Zipora Schuck MA. MS. is a NYS school psychologist and educational consultant for many schools in the NY/NJ area. She works with students, teachers, principals, and parents to help children be successful.


Say Yes to Say No

Shira Savit

“Will I ever learn how to say no?” No to the dessert, no to the sugar, no to late-night eating.

Many women struggle with saying no to food. I suggest they take a different approach and learn to say yes. By fully embracing the yes, we naturally create space for the nos.

Saying yes isn’t about indulging in everything we want; it’s about saying yes to making conscious food choices, yes to acknowledging our feelings, yes to being attuned to our hunger and fullness signals, yes to mindful eating, yes to compassion, and yes to accepting our mistakes and humanity. (And yes to working on these concepts with patience and trust in ourselves.)

When we grant ourselves permission to eat and to feel, we empower ourselves to say no in a balanced and fulfilling way.


Shira Savit, MA, MHC, INHC is a mental health counselor and integrative nutritionist who specializes in emotional eating, binge eating, and somatic nutrition. Shira works both virtually and in person in Jerusalem.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 897)

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