Defensiveness Can Destroy Relationships

african american couple fighting

How would you describe a “defensive” person? To me, a defensive person is always blocking other people, like a defensive back on a football team. Keeping them out. Not letting them get close. Not letting others influence them in any way. Defensive people are poor listeners because while you are talking they are preparing their comeback instead of truly listening to what you are saying. In their minds,they will admit nothing, they HAVE to be right, they are unable to acknowledge weakness or wrongness of any kind, and even simple mistakes signify to them personal inadequacy, unworthiness, or failure.

In my experience, defensiveness is one of the major blocks to effective couples communication. Some couples spend hours explaining their actions, their thoughts, their feelings, or their viewpoints – all to no avail in terms of clarifying or resolving the issue at hand.

Defensive people use numerous strategies to defend themselves from emotional attacks including denial (“No..it isn’t that way, I didn’t do it, I didn’t mean it, that wasn’t my intention, etc), justification (“OK, I did do it but only because……”), arguing as to why it was the right thing to do even if partner thinks it wasn’t, and excuse-making(“I was tired,” I didn’t think it would bother you, it was…..”)

The truly defensive partner self-defines “reality” – what they say goes, regardless of your opinion or other evidence. If you disagree they may say things like, “are you calling me a liar?” They may also degrade you or diminish you in order to invalidate your viewpoint: (“What would you know? You couldn’t even finish college.”)

The overly defensive person often subtly shifts blame for a problem or issue from them back to you. Its YOUR fault- not theirs that no one picked up your child at day care at 4:40 because each thought the other was going to.

The defensive person’s ego is always at stake when arguing. You ask a question, they answer in a way which anticipates your NEXT question in order to protect or shield themselves. Example: Did you remember to cancel the delivery for today? Answer: “It really doesn’t matter because I’ll be home next week which will be better anyhow because…….”

Denial is one of the major weapons used by the defensive person. People who deny just have an amazing ability to change things around in their mind until reality fits. I encountered the best example of this with my own family recently. My 91 year old father and I visited the homestead where I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Or, I should say, we tried to. My childhood house address had been 3648 W.58th Street.Trust me, I had to repeat it many many times to my mother in case I got lost and had to tell a policeman where I lived)

Upon arrival with my dad recently, we discovered there was no house left standing that had the address 3648. Only houses with address 3650 and 3646 stood in front of us. No 3648. A man walking by explained that 3648 had burned down a number of years ago. My father (who is NOT senile and is perfectly rational most of the time) absolutely could not accept that fact. “Must be a mistake.” “3648 wasn’t our address…. It was 3850… there IS our house…..that guy doesn’t know what he is talking about….etc.” To this day, he still believes that our house is standing right there where it has always been.

Just like I always tell my patients: PERCEPTION IS REALITY. BUT NOT NECESSARILY THE TRUTH.

Defensive people are handicapped because they block out reality which means they cannot accept influence or correct information from outside of their own beliefs or misconceptions. They are often inflexible and rigid. They remain like a rock. The harder you try to change their mind, the deeper the trench they dig.

Another man I knew was absolutely inflexible – that is to say, defensive – on the idea of how family members potentially can relate to each other. His wife would have the family watch a feel-good programs like “Parenthood” or “Hallmark Hall of Fame Specials” where family members actually showed affection for each other, talked over issues instead of getting angry, and generally cared for each other and had each other’s back.
Then, she would say, “why can’t we be like that?”

Our defensive and rigid husband denied that ANY family could be like that….NOBODY communicates that way in a real family. There was NO WAY their family could do it like that. No openness to possibility, no acknowledgement that the way he did things might not be the right way.

If you are a defensive person, try to be more flexible and open. What you perceive as a threat may actually be the act of someone trying to help you- not hurt you.

If you have to cope with an overly defensive partner or other family member, try a softer approach in how you present things. Unfortunately, yelling, screaming, demanding or insisting that you are right only makes a defensive person more defensive.

Strike and then back off and try a different approach toward reaching them. Or, try humor.Slide in under the radar more often rather than hitting them with the force of a Mack truck- and see if you get better results and less defensiveness.

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Anger Management In Action: Stop yelling At Your Kids

Screaming accomplishes Little

Screaming accomplishes Little

I hate to hear parents screaming at their kids. Why? Because it doesn’t work! It creates a bad feeling between parent and child! It makes the “yeller” look very bad socially (if done in public). It encourages “push back” from the yelled-at child. Did I mention that it doesn’t work? Anger Management is an important parenting skill.

When I was growing up on Cleveland, Ohio, I had a mother could have used anger management. She yelled a lot. Out of love and concern, mind you, but it was still yelling. Sometimes it was over minor things, other times over safety issues and other times over character development. She did it so much that my brother and I became immune to it, especially as we got older.

Truthfully, much of the time it went in one ear and out the other.

Our response to a yelling request was usually something like “yea…mom…right away.” as we went on with our lives. AS I write this now, I feel a little guilty about it, because she was right about what she was yelling about, but horribly ineffective in changing some of our behavior. Like picking up after ourselves. Or, doing chores. Or, coming in for dinner on time while out playing. Or,- and this was a big one- us two brothers not fighting with each other.

When we became adolescents, she got desperate to get us to do things – now more serious things like having my brother not play tennis or baseball because he had osteoporosis in his arm. Or, insisting loudly that he practice the clarinet because lessons were being paid for. She pleaded, she harangued, she threatened, she yelled. nothing seem to work. My brother and I could easily persuade her to change her mind about things, to feel sorry for us, and….I must confess…manipulate her.

Except at some point she caught on and would utter those dreaded words in a threatening tone:
“Wait until your father gets home.”

Now that usually worked because my dad was….let us say charitably..a no-nonsense disciplinarian. Once he made up his mind about something, he never changed it, especially in terms of his parenting principals (like: “children should be seen and not heard;” “all teenagers are irresponsible,” and “get that mad look off your face, or I’ll give you something to be mad about.”

We were very well behaved in school because of my Dad’s edict that “if you get in trouble in school, you will get in twice that amount of trouble when you get home.”

But, at least he followed through on his “consequences” when we behaved badly, whereas mom often would not.Unfortunately, his rigid and unbending rules caused much frustration and stifled creativity. It also unfortunately taught us that there was no negotiating with an authority figure.. your only choice was to succumb/comply or suffer pain.

On a scale of 1-10, we would do what dad said at a 10. He only needed to say it once (most of the time).

Fair or not, at least we knew what the deal was and what the rules were. Break them at your own peril.

The “cost” of that approach to parenting was that there was little or no closeness between my father and his male children. We “listened” to him, but did not have a close emotional connection with him.

So, how do you get your kids to change their behavior without yelling or without losing emotional connection with them? In short, how can you be an effective parent?

First of all, don’t yell; it is useless most of the time, and in most circumstances. In fact, it makes things worse because as they get older kids start seeing you as emotionally unstable, and they mighy lose respect for you, which is not a good thing at all.

There are many other ways to deal with your children.Being mindful of alternatives will make you a more effective parent.Following are some tips that should be helpful:

*Be consistent with your house rules. Write the rules out and stick them on your refrigerator. Then if your kids act out, it is against the rules, not you personally. It puts a degree of separation between you and the bad behavior or your kids.

* You and their other parent must agree on the rules and standards and back each other up (within reason), even if you don’t agree with each other 100%.

*Tell your children how you feel when they do such and such. Rather than telling them how stupid, wrong, or immoral they are, tell them how disappointed you are in their behavior.

* Before yelling, take a time out and cool down. Come back later to deal with it. it only takes a few seconds of rage to cause a lot of damage in your relationship with your children.

Anger Class 101: Silence is an Anger Management Tool

They say that silence is golden.

Tell that to Sally and Jim who argue constantly and fight like cats and dogs over almost every issue. Both are highly successful, intelligent and verbal so there is no end to issues over which to fight. If perchance they do run out of issues temporarily, they creatively start fighting about fighting. They need anger class 101.

Let’s listen to the dialogue for a moment:
with one accusing the other of being unfair or talking “with that sneer of yours,” or “shouting at me.” while the other insists they are not shouting.

As a couples therapist, and someone who has conducted over 1000 anger classes in Southern California, I sometimes want to say to one or the other: “Why don’t you just keep your mouth shut so avoid an argument? Partners often inflame each other, escalate anger, and talk themselves into major fights which could easily be avoided with the practice of temporary silence. This is known as the tool of “Retreat and Think Things over” in out system of anger management.

As Lao Tzu is quoted as having said:
“Silence is a Source of Great Strength.”

But, back to Sally and Jim who continue the argument:

Yes, Jim says, but I am right and she knows that I am right, so why should I silence myself?” “The restaurant WAS where I said it was – NOT where she kept insisting (wrongly) it was located.”

“Oh Lord, It is so hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way”
…….Mack Davis song, 1980

Know anyone who ALWAYS has to be right, like Jim? Not only do they always have to be right, they have an irrepressible urge to point out when they factually know that you are wrong. So,like Jim, they correct you, contradict you, argue with you, contest everything you say, and then later remind you that “I told you so” if there is any evidence that you are wrong and they were right.

The frustrating thing is, often these people ARE right, or partiality right. But, few important issues in the world are about absolute right or absolute wrong. They are about shades of each. Only very rigid people divide the world into absolute rights or absolute wrongs. Partial truths often drive arguments because of mis-communication or misunderstanding.

“Black and White People” vs “Gray” people.

“Black and white” people see the world in absolutes. It is either this way or that way. “Gray” people see in between possibilities, and understand that “truth” or “reality” in many cases is a matter of perception..not a matter of fact. Often, “black and white” people marry “gray” people and the fight is on.

Some common examples: Jim sees wife Mary as stubborn and unbending. She sees herself as morally right, principled, and duty-bound to do things Jim does not agree with. As another example, Mary sees Jim as lazy, not ambitious, and negligent in his household duties. Jim sees himself as evolving to the place in life where he can enjoy life, have fun with the kids, and generally appreciate his good health and financial freedom.

Who is right and who is wrong in these examples? Honestly, is your experience that the world most people live in is black and white, or do most issues fall in the gray area?

Four ways to deal with a partner who sees the world differently than you do.

1.LET IT GO.
For some people, it is part of their personality and their ego. They cannot stand not to be right, correct an injustice, or make sure you know the right way to do things. It validates them and makes them feel good about themselves to be right and to prove you wrong. You should not be around a person like this unless you are super-secure. Let them be right in their own minds, if they have to. Let it go! (Most times). If they swear it is noon; calmly show them a clock showing it is 1pm.

2. AGREE TO DISAGREE
On many issues in a relationship (research shows 69%), you are never going to agree anyway. So, agree to disagree and don’t bring the subject up unless the “house is on fire.” (or unless it is really doing damage to someone)

3. SEPARATE IN YOU REMIND THE ISSUE FROM WHO YOUR PARTNER REALLY IS. Personally, I like many people even though they are diametrically opposed to things I truly believe in. If you get irritated over one slice of behavior displayed by your partner, try to see him or her as a total person.

4. DON’T TALK AN ISSUE TO DEATH TRYING TO PERSUADE YOUR PARTNER OF ITS TRUTH OR YOUR RIGHTNESS. Sometimes the more it is talked about, the worse it gets. Let the issue get some rest. MAybe it will recover sooner.

Are You An Anger Hypocrite?

There are many definitions of a hypocrite, but the one that I wish to discuss in this blog is a person who professes one thing but does another. The hypocrite imposes standards on others to which his or her own behavior does not comply.

The Anger Hypocrite
One specific type of hypocrite that I often see in my couples work is what I call the anger hypocrite.

Simply explained, the anger hypocrite expects their partner not to lose anger control while they themselves rage uncontrollably and rarely control their own anger, frustration or displeasure. The anger hypocrite justifies their behavior by convincing themselves that their anger is a normal reaction to the horrible behavior displayed by their partner.

But, when you stop and think about it, is it fair to expect more of your partner than you deliver? Put in another realm, if you and your partner are both alcoholics and both agree to stop drinking, would you expect him/her to stop drinking while you continued (and then become upset when they drink)? Or, is it fair to demand financial responsibility from your partner if you are a spendthrift or don’t stick to an agreed upon budget? Preaching one thing but doing another spells hypocrisy, doesn’t it? (more…)

Anger Management: Learn to Diffuse The Angry Emotion

Anger is one of the core emotions or feelings that human beings are hard-wired to experience whenever they are blocked from achieving a goal they have or an end result they wish to achieve. Anger Management is the process of learning how to deal with anger as a core emotion.

Everybody feels anger from time to time. Not feeling it can cause as many problems as eggshell exploding over minor frustrations, set-backs or obstacles placed between us and what it is we may want.

Some anger management programs try teach clients to be less angry. Often this works if people can learn to experience life events in a different way so as not to no longer activate those parts of the human brain that trigger anger in us. For example, rather than telling ourselves that a bad driver on the road is out to get us and make our day miserable we can tell ourselves that they probably were preoccupied with something else and did not even notice they were cutting us off. (more…)

Six Parental Tips For Your Angry Children

It was labor day when 8 year old Brandon’s mother heard a commotion from her child’s room. Seems that his 14 year old visiting cousin said something that upset Brandon which caused Brandon to strike the other boy. His mother Michelle hysterically called her therapist wondering what to do and how to handle the anger in her young son which seemed to be escalating as he became older.

Her therapist wisely explained that children become angry in a variety of situations. Common causes of childhood anger include: frustration, needing attention, feeling powerless, being misunderstood, not feeling good about themselves, feeling helpless, being belittled or made fun of, not having physical needs taken care of, having a parent take over instead of asking if the child wants help, being disappointed, having difficulty saying what they need, or being punished.

The problem of excessive childhood anger is growing. Yet many parents—like Michelle—feel they don’t have the tools to teach their children how to deal with normal angry feelings in an appropriate manner, without hitting or yelling at others, or losing control. Therefore, some parents ineffectively deal with their child’s anger by demanding that he or she stop being angry. Worse, some parents actually yell at or hit their child in attempts to “teach” their child not to be angry. That is like putting them alone in the woods unarmed with a raging black bear to teach them not to be fearful!

Alternatively, good parenting requires teaching children the practical skills needed for anger control. Although feeling angry is a part of life that no one can avoid because it is “hardwired” in our brains as a protective and survival mechanism, we can teach our children positive ways to cope with these normal angry feelings. Learning the tools of anger management empowers children, makes them more effective and pleasant human beings, and improves the world by decreasing hatred, violence and conflict.

Following are six tips for parents to help their children manage anger, based on our model of anger management called the eight tools of anger control”: (more…)

Anger Management In Action: Let sleeping dogs lie?

Silenced

“How did your week go, Samuel?” I asked my married patient who  consulted me for anger management and anger management skills to deal with his wife.

“Much better,” he replied, “because I kept my mouth shut this time when I desperately wanted to argue with her because I knew I was right. I decided to apply one of the anger management tools you taught me.”

“What did you do instead?” I asked him.

Sam replied: ” I took your advice and simply left the house, went into the back yard for 10 minutes to cool off, then came back in and everything was OK. I didn’t argue with her over the issue because it wasn’t that important. I didn’t have to win this time; I just let it go.”

We continued our therapy session pet hair vacuum guide by agreeing that “talking” about an issue doesn’t always solve it. In fact, sometimes it makes it worse. In intimate relationships, sometimes it is best to let sleeping dogs lie, as they say.  Believe it or not, over-asking about the issue sometimes becomes the issue.

Have you ever had this conversation with your partner?

“What are you upset about?”

“I’m not upset.”

“Yes, you are. tell me why you are upset. Was it something I said?”

“OK. if you insist. I am upset because you keep asking me if I’m upset.” (more…)

Anger Management In Action: Relationship Blowups Can Be Costly

Conflict 10“Dr. Fiore,” the voice on the phone pleaded, “I need anger management classes right away. I blew up at my girlfriend last night and she said it’s over until I get help”.

As Kevin recounted the first night of anger management class, he and his girlfriend had argued in the car over which route to take home from a party. Events progressed from mild irritation, to yelling and name calling.

Things escalated at home. He tried to escape, but she followed him from room to room, demanding resolution of the conflict. He became angry, defensive and intimidating. he had not yet learned anger management skills.

Frightened, she left. Later, she left an anguished message saying that she loved him, but couldn’t deal with his angry, hurtful outbursts.

Kevin said that he normally is a very “nice” and friendly person. But, on this occasion, his girlfriend had been drinking before the party. In his view, she was irrational, and non-stop in criticism. He tried oxiracetam to reason with her, but it just made things worse. Finally, as Kevin saw things, in desperation he “lost it” and became enraged.

How should Kevin have handled this situation? What could he have done differently? What anger management skills would have helped? What actions should you take in similar situations?

(more…)

Anger Management In Action: Need More Respect From Your Family?

Case #1- Elizabeth, a 40 year old homemaker was always feeling angry and “used” by her family, constantly saying that everybody took advantage of her.

She felt that she worked like a slave but her family showed no appreciation or acknowledgment of her many efforts. She needed anger management to help deal with her feelings.

Case #2- Bill, a 34 year old husband complained that his critical wife was always angry at him. He sought anger management to learn how to deal with his angry wife. 
He spent his life trying to cope with her outrages which often escalated him into defensive anger which didn’t happen anywhere but in this relationship.

Case#3- Betty, a 42 year separated mother struggled with her soon to be ex-husband’s contempt and disrespect every time she angrily called him to discuss details of their divorce.She needed anger management to learn how to better deal with her ex.
These three cases bring up the question often asked by participants in our anger management classes: Is it possible to control how family members treat us? The short answer is “no” — but often we can teach them to treat us better!

Believe it or not, we are constantly teaching our family how to treat us— both by our responses to their behavior, and by the behavior we display to them to which they react.. In our case examples:

  • By automatically doing whatever her husband and children requested, Elizabeth was “teaching” them that there are almost no limits to what she would do for them.
  • With his behavior, Bill was actually teaching his wife that the way to get attention from him (even if it was negative attention) was for her to create drama.
  • Betty was so intimidated by her husband, that her defensive “attitude” was “teaching” him that to deal with her, he had to push back with the contempt and disrespect that he constantly showed her.

The dance of anger
Our interchange with family members is often like a carefully choreographed dance. They make a move. You make a move in response to their move. They then respond to what you said or did and ….well, you get the idea!

How do you change the dance? Start by seeing yourself as a teacher—of how you would like your family to treat you.

Four ways to change what you teach others
1. Try a softer-start-up. Marital research shows that the first few seconds of an interaction can predict the final outcome of the encounter. Try being softer, more polite, more respectful, less hostile, or more empathetic—and see how this change in your approach actually teaches others to respond better to you.

2. Take a time-out before dealing with the conflict or situation. Conflicting or arguing family members often work themselves up to a point at which problem solving is impossible. The solution is to retreat and give yourself time to calm down and think things over. This takes at least 20 minutes, often much longer. Before taking your time out, it is important to tell the other person that you will commit to returning soon to deal with the conflict, after you are calmer—then be sure to do it!

3. Acknowledge that you see how they must be seeing the situation. Called “empathy,” this response on your part teaches others that you care about their feelings and viewpoints, and opinions. Acknowledgment doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree with their viewpoint—only that you see it. Sometimes, your family needs to know that you care about them and respect their opinions before they listen to what you say.

4. Set limits and boundaries for your family members. Limits and boundaries are basically rules regarding acceptable behaviors toward you as well as what you are willing or not willing to do.

If you feel others are taking advantage of you, ask yourself what you may be doing ( or not doing )to give the message it is “ok” for them to do whatever they are doing. Often you can change their behavior toward you by teaching them different rules of being with you. The easiest way to do this is simply to respond differently yourself.

For instance, they make you the core of a nasty joke. Being a nice person, you pretend it doesn’t bother you( even though it does), so you laugh with everybody else. As an alternative, try not laughing with them, which is a way of teaching them that they have crossed a boundary with you.

To learn more about this tool of anger control as well as seven others, attend our local anger management classes. More information below.  

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Anger Management In Action: Forgiveness.Let the Past Go

 

Struggling with resentment

Struggling with resentment

Thirty-two year old Elizabeth cried during her anger management class as she related how one year ago her 19-month-old girl was permanently brain-damaged as the result of medical error at the hospital in which she was delivered.

She definitely had a legitimate grievance toward the hospital and the medical staff and felt that she could never forgive them for what she saw as their incompetence. She clearly was not yet ready to forgive—and she needed her simmering anger to motivate her to do what she felt she needed to do legally and otherwise to deal with this horrific situation.

Yet, even in this tragic situation, at some point in the future—when she is ready—Elizabeth might elect to find a way to forgive. For her to be able to do this, after a certain amount of time, she will have to take the step of separating in her mind two things: (1) blaming the hospital for what they did and (2) blaming them for her resulting feelings about the situation.

Elizabeth cannot change what was done to her daughter, but she can change her current feelings about it and she can change how she lives the rest of her life. If she continues to hold an intense grievance, she is giving all the power to what happened in the past to determine her present emotional well being—almost like being victimized again while remaining in her emotional prison.

Should you forgive?
The answer to this question always comes down to personal choices and decisions. Some people in our anger management classes feel that certain things cannot and shouldn’t be forgiven while other participants feel that ultimately anything can be forgiven.

As an example of what is possible, the staff of the Stanford Forgiveness Project successfully worked with Protestant and Catholic families of Northern Ireland whose children had been killed by each other. Using the techniques taught by the Stanford group, these grieving parents were able to forgive and get on with their lives.

On the other hand, Dr. Abrams-Spring who wrote a classic book called “After The Affair,” cautions that forgiving a cheating partner too quickly or too easily can be an indication of your low self-esteem. In her view, forgiveness must be earned by the offending partner and not given automatically.

As you struggle with your decision to forgive or not (and remember – it is a decision), keep in mind that recent studies show that there are measurable benefits to forgiveness.

Two reasons to forgive:

  • Forgiving Is Good For Your Health. Studies show that people who forgive report fewer health problems while people who blame others for their troubles have a higher incidence of illness such as cardiovascular disease and cancers.
  • Forgiving is good for your peace of mind. Scientific research shows that Forgiveness often improves your peace of mind: One such study done in 1996 showed that the more people forgave those who deeply hurt them, the less angry they were. Two studies of divorced people show that those who forgave the former spouse were more emotionally healthy than those who chose not to forgive. The forgivers had a higher sense of well being and lower anxiety and depression.

Three tips to forgive

It is common for angry people to think, “I want to forgive and I know I should, but I don’t know how.”

  • Tip 1- Remember, forgiveness is a process that takes time and patience to complete. You must be ready. Realize that this is for you – not for anyone else.
  • Tip 2- Realize that forgiving does not mean you are condoning the actions of the offender or what they did to you. It does mean that you will blame less and find a way to think differently about what happened to you.
  • Tip 3- Refocus on the positives in your life. Remember that a lift well lived is the best revenge. People who find a way to see love, beauty and kindness around them are better able to forgive and get past their life grievances.

More tips on how to handler resentment in our book. Click below

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