Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.  

Laurie and Dennis sat tensely in front of me as they shared a recent fight. They had been counseling with me for only a few weeks, and had not yet learned some critical skills needed to avoid the kinds of emotional eruptions they were sharing about today.

"I'm really tired of his defensiveness," Laurie stated. "I can't give him any kind of feedback without him turning things back on me."

"She came at me last night," Dennis said, irritably. "All I did was make a comment about her father. I didn't mean any harm."

"But, I've told him I'm sensitive about my dad, and he continues to bad-mouth him. I don't know how to get him to stop making these kinds of comments."

Turning to Dennis she continued, "I don't like you talking about him. I've explained how I love my dad, in spite of the problems I had with him while growing up. But, I still love him."

"Okay," I said, gesturing to both of them to stop. "Can you both see how you are talking at each other instead of with each other?"

"Happens all the time," Laurie said, glaring at Dennis. "I never get the sense that he really listens to me, or that he takes responsibility for the ways he hurts my feelings."

"Same here!" Dennis blurted.

"Folks," I said more sternly. "I feel like I'm in a courtroom, not a sanctuary. Can we practice really listening to each other, empathizing with each other's pain and seeking solutions?"

They both nodded.

"It will take a significant shift," I said. "I want you to ponder a few questions."

I paused to allow them time to give me their full attention.

"Do you believe your mate is intentionally trying to hurt you?" I asked.

Both shook their heads and said "no."

"Do you think your mate generally has your best interests in mind?"

"Yes," they said.

"Then I'm going to ask you to make a radical shift in how you approach and listen to each other," I said. "I'm going to ask you to eliminate defensiveness from your relationship. It won't be easy, but you'll be amazed at the results."

Both nodded their approval.

"Let's begin with you, Dennis," I said, looking over at Dennis. "I want you to non-defensively explore with Laurie why she wants you to stop talking critically about her father."

"I already know," he said.

"Maybe you do," I said, "and maybe you don't. Still, you would be showing Laurie great respect by understanding her point of view and then honoring her request."

Dennis proceeded to ask for Laurie's needs regarding her father. She shared how she felt protective of her father, in spite of the challenges she'd had with him growing up. She asked Dennis to not talk critically about him again, and to understand and appreciate her feelings.

While Dennis was initially defensive, claiming he had never intended to hurt her with his opinions, I asked him to stop defending himself, and simply attend to Laurie. Furthermore, I asked him to validate her feelings and give her what she needed, if he desired.

He expressed an understanding of her needs and vowed to never speak badly about her father again.

"That feels really good," Laurie said, reaching her hand out to Dennis. "I feel like a wall has been torn down between us."

Dennis and Laurie are like many couples who become locked in power struggles, often fueled by defensiveness. Let's explore some of the perils of defensiveness in a relationship.

Defensiveness:

• Stops us from truly listening to our mate;
• Protects us from feeling vulnerable or fragile;
• Prevents us from receiving critical information;
• Inhibits our growth;
• Builds a wall between us and our mate.

Let's consider the value of tearing down the wall of defensiveness. What happens when couples agree to truly listen and learn from their mate?

Non-defensive Listening:

• Honors our mate, sending a message that we value what they have to say;
• Creates an environment for open, honest sharing;
• Promotes an attitude of receptivity and learning;
• Leads to personal and relational growth:
• Encourages personal and relational healing.

For as powerful as non-defensive listening is, it's often very hard to do. We have strong desires to look good, protect our ego and assign blame. We find it impossible to hear another's message because we're tempted to see our mate as the deliverer of wrong information. Caught up in "courtroom-like behavior," we are tempted to pick apart our mate's logic. We find fault in their words, the accuracy of them or perhaps even their delivery. All of these actions build a defensive barrier to listening.

What can we do to open the channels of communication? Here are a few tools to help us in our efforts to be non-defensive listeners, taken in part from my book, Ten Lifesavers for Every Couple.

First, appreciate our innate tendency to defend ourselves. We've been defending our actions since Adam and Eve. No one wants to "look bad," and we will devise any number of strategies in order to avoid taking responsibility for our actions and the hurtfulness of them.

Second, understand that no one knows you as well as your mate, and this places them in a unique position to notice your character weaknesses. Our mate is not going out of their way to notice our weaknesses—they become naturally apparent in the course of relating.

Third, recognize your mate has no malevolent attitude toward you. While it may not seem true to you, consider that your mate is not trying to hurt you but rather has good intentions. They are troubled by certain behaviors and want them to stop.

Fourth, ignoring your mate's cry for change will not make the problem go away. Denial will only work for so long, and then the problem will emerge in some other form. Your mate may become angrier, resentful, detached or ultimately rejecting. Shooting the messenger has never been an effective problem-solving tactic.

Fifth, consider the importance of hearing the message your mate is trying to send. Consider the value of listening and learning from your mate. It is possible that they really know something that could be of immense value to you? Of course it is. Listen for the ‘kernel of truth' (or more!) in what they are saying, and thank them for caring enough about you to tell you.

Finally, consider that God often uses people in our world (including our mate) to deliver important messages. Scripture says, "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." (Romans 12:3) Our ‘help-mate' can be an instrument of God's teaching to us as well as helping us in this endeavor.

What are some additional ways avoid defensiveness? Let's discuss this issue.

January 26, 2010

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.