Cultivating Connection by Dropping Defensiveness

Cultivating Connection by Dropping Defensiveness

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Recognizing when our partnership gardens needs tending is of vital importance to collaborating and co-creating a nourishing, fun, vibrant partnership. There are as many ways to cultivate secure relational connection as there are ways to cause harm and disruption to the intimacy field that exists between us. As a couples therapist, I’ve seen many skillful people bring humor, caring, empathy and responsiveness in to their relationships, thereby investing in relational stability, durability and well-being. I’ve also seen many couples falter, in various and typical ways.

Bottom line, it’s up to BOTH partners to care for, collaborate and co-create relational intimacy!

One of the keys to connectedness is the capacity to recognize and drop defensiveness. It’s common for excited, reactive, interactive cycles to speed up, to become more heated and escalated, when one of the partners counters the other partners bid or approach. A dismissive comment, an invalidating denial, an interfering deflection or an argumentative reparte, ... suggests a differentiating stance, a speaking into and amplifying difference, an distancing emphasis of separateness. While differentiation can be healthful and a sign of strong individuality and autonomy, in times of stress and conflict that can divide further rather than unify a couple. When there is a wobbly lack of intimacy, trust, warmth or positive sentiment, such differentiation can be harmful to the fabric of secure connection. Signs (verbal and non-verbal) need to be accurately read. When can the relationship tolerate difference? When does familiarity, safety and security need to be fed? What does my partner need in this moment and am I sufficiently grounded to support them? When there is already substantial disruption in the intimacy system, the interpersonal bridge needs to be built and the fabric of safety woven and tended.

9 Keys to dismantling defensiveness:

1. Recognize the signs of defensiveness: Tightness or high charge in your body, loss of humor, protective posture, increase in judgmental, critical, explaining or blaming impulses,...

2. Come up with a defensiveness plan with your partner: agreements on what you will each do when you’ve flagged a defensive cycle.

3. Defuse via the power of admission: i.e. acknowledge tension, defensiveness, more vulnerable emotions,... own your part.

4. Share vulnerable personal truth: talk precisely about your own experience, especially vulnerability, rather than denying or projecting onto your partner

5. Keep your own physiology in the “window of tolerance”: if its not, check your assumptions, emotions, needs and impulses before speaking.

6. Find “likeness” and similarity: Acknowledge your partner’s feelings, perspectives and places of agreement first before launching any counter-argument or initiative.

7. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

8. Define success as both partners needs being met: if your partners needs aren't as important as yours, your connection’s in trouble.

As the Dodo Bird in Alice’s Wonderland says of the Caucus Race,... “everybody wins”!

9. Cultivate empathy, responsiveness, openness and care for each and all partners!

Defensiveness is a buzz-kill and an intimacy-disrupter.

When couples are in defensiveness, the conversation will inevitably falter into an unsatisfying grind that will then need repair efforts. It’s a sign of ruptured trust and security. Recognizing it and addressing it right away is an indicator of a healthy relationship that is able to prevent small ruptures from becoming large, distressing and de-stabilizing ones! Turning a competitive or conflictual cycle into a collaborative one serves not only each partner, but also enhances and strengthens the partnership or relational field, the holding environment that exists between us. A healthy, nourishing relational garden then has the further benefit of serving the wider community of people that you, as partners, influence.