Is Defensive Listening Hurting Your Marriage?

Is Defensive Listening Hurting Your Marriage?


Crystal Bradshaw

Most people engage in defensive listening several times a day. Being defensive is normal, it’s universal, it’s natural, and it’s an innate.

We all do it.

Its existence serves to protect us. Since being defensive is a natural response, it’s sometimes hard to recognize when it’s occurring. It even occurs in normal, non-emotionally charged, conversations.

If you can learn to recognize it in yourself, and in your partner, you can choose to respond differently and help keep the conversation from spiraling into an unnecessary fight.

What is defensive listening?

Defensive listening is exactly as it sounds. You are listening to your partner defensively. You’re hearing what your partner is saying through a defensive filter, and everything that comes through that filter is distorted into a criticism.

In this type of emotional state our responses are typically angry, and anger is often met with more anger. Things have a tendency to escalate rather quickly in these moments.

So how do you know if you or your partner are using defensive listening?

According to psychologist Dr. Harriet Lerner, there are 3 signs that indicate defensive listening is taking place.

1. You are listening for inaccuracies.
2. You are listening for exaggerations.
3. You are listening for what you do not agree with.

If you catch yourself (or your partner) doing any of these three, then defensive listening is taking place.

When we are listening for these things, and reacting emotionally to them, we are not hearing our partner; we are not hearing our partners perspective or even hearing their pain. We are not taking the time to understand them, we are just feeling attacked and we react by defending ourselves at the expense of our partner.

So, how do you manage defensive listening when it intrudes into your conversation?

It’s important to understand that defensiveness is counter-productive to listening. So, recognizing that defensive listening has entered the conversation is the first thing you can do to break the cycle, create distance from it, and reclaim the conversation.

​Once you are aware of its presence, you can actively make intentional choices to work around it and kick it out of the conversation. Here’s how you can do that:

1.  Find something you can agree with within the context of the conversation and talk about that.

2.  Take a breath to calm down the nervous system (see my previous post on Flooding). If the frontal lobe is offline, then the conversation will not be a productive one.
3.  Be curious, ask questions. This helps you gain more clarity of your partners point of view while at the same time allowing them to feel heard and understood by you, which will help them calm down.

4.  Take accountability for your part, no matter how big or small that part is. Taking accountability for your role will help defuse tension.

5. State your differences. It’s okay to express where you two differ, this doesn’t mean you are trying to prove you’re right or convince your partner to take your side. It’s simply saying “Hey, I see this thing this way, and just because we each see it differently doesn’t mean we can’t respect each other’s experience of it.”

6.  Do not interrupt.

7.  Listen to understand, NOT to disagree. Most people listen to respond, not to understand the other person. Listen for your partner’s pain and their perspective, don’t spend your time listening for what you can “prove,” listening for the right or wrong. It’s wasted energy to try to prove your side or correct “facts.”

A “fact” thrown out during an emotional exchange is what Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Esther Perel, calls a Pseudo-Fact. When we are emotional, and when we are recalling “facts,” those facts are intensified by our emotions and are often not reality.

A Pseudo-Fact is when we turn our feelings into facts and make them part of the reality. These “facts” are merely an intensification of our experience and not necessarily reality. We store emotional memories more vividly, and because of that they can be highly inaccurate. The memory is more strong and more vivid in a personal sense, and what we recall is not necessarily what we actually experienced originally.

The accuracy of the memory changes over time, but the strength of our subjective feeling of that memory, of what happened, will remain intact as a powerful experience to us. So our emotional memory will be more accurate than our recall of what actually took place. We will remember a feeling more correctly than details.

Remember, there are always two points-of-views occurring, two different experiences, and two different realities, realities that are influenced by emotions. You cannot claim your reality as the only one and disregard your partner’s experience. You must validate their experience because it’s what’s real for them. And validation does not mean you are giving up your stance or saying your experience isn’t correct or valid, you’re just saying, “I see your point of view. I get why you feel that way. It make sense to me.”

8. Avoid using absolutes such as “You Never” and “You Always.”

Do you know what defensive listening looks like in marriage?

Examples of Defensive Listening:

Well, you always….
You never….
Why don’t you ever….
You’re forgetting that….
No, that’s not what happened….
You’re exaggerating the details…
Well, what about the time when….
Examples of non-defensive listening:– I hear what you’re saying, and it’s difficult for me to hear, but I want to understand your side. Can you tell me a little more about what it was like for you when I….

– Can you please share with me another time in our history together where I did that? I’m not asking to defend myself, I’m asking so I can better understand your experience of me so that I can work on changing that behavior.

– I’m not asking this in a critical way, but I’m curious about this…did it occur to you that…..

– I’m not saying you’re wrong and I’m right, I’m saying I just see this situation differently than you do.

When you listen defensively, you are actually removing yourself from a dialogue and maneuvering into a subjective debate filled with intense emotions with the goal being to prove yourself right and the other wrong.

You’re making your partner your enemy, someone to take down and defeat, instead of seeing them as someone who lives along side of you and has a different set of experiences.

​You need to be able to pause and consider other alternatives and view points and not stay rigidly fixed in your own perspective.

One of the perks of being part of a couple is that you enrich each other. Make sure you don’t exclude that enrichment in moments of disagreement.

Relationships are built on the seemingly insignificant daily exchanges that take place between spouses. The next time you find yourself looking for inaccuracies, exaggerations, and what you don’t agree with, take a breath and listen for what you do agree with. This will allow for connection, understanding, and help defusing growing tension.

All it takes is for one partner to change the dynamic; one person can literally shift the way the conversation is going. Realize that you are presented with an opportunity to forge a more solid relationship. If you miss the opportunity for connection in a moment of disagreement because you choose to be right instead of being in a relationship, then you are actively compromising the integrity of the relationship and setting it up to be vulnerable instead of resilient.

You want to be able to bounce back from conflict in a healthy way, and you can create a stronger bond while doing so if you know how to spot defensive listening and pivot away from it. Don’t let conflict lead to discord, let it lead to connection and growth.


Related Articles

Leave a Reply