As an Imago Therapist, I often hear clients express their concerns about their partner's behaviors during moments of conflict. One partner might be fully bothered by the fact their partner seems to shut down, while another client might hate the fact their partner overreacts and takes things "the wrong way."
As one client recently summed it up, "The problem with my wife is, she’s too defensive! I say one thing and she acts like I just about killed her." Interestingly, this man's wife saw the issue as her husband beginning to withdraw again. As she puts it, "He never wants to talk. If I tell him I want to have a conversation he gives me the "Am I in trouble?" look and seems to slink away."
What's truly bothering each person in this relationship, is the defense that their partner presents in a response to THEM!
In cases where we don’t feel emotionally safe, it makes perfect sense to want to protect ourselves. In fact, our brains seem to be hard-wired for our survival in this way. It's this survival mechanism that has us protect, protect, and protect starting in childhood when we don't have many emotional or psychological tools available.
As we grow we have a tendency to hang on to our familiar ways of protecting ourselves. This is our "automatic pilot" which we are destined to fall back on unless and until we become conscious. Here’s the sad irony: we don't realize that it’s not necessary to protect ourselves in the same way. Further, it’s the behaviors we view as protections are probably making our situation much worse.
The good news is that if you make your partner’s emotional safety a top priority in your presence, they may be able to relax those defenses that you struggle within your relationship.
Emotional safety includes some of the following:
an openness to see the actual person in front of you, and not who you "make them up" to be;
an attitude of non-critical curiosity;
refraining from judgment, shaming, blaming and criticism;
a willingness to fully listen as well as to speak of your own thoughts and feelings;
validating the logic of what your partner needs, whether or not you agree with it;
and empathizing with their emotional state.
In essence, you have to LOVE your partner out of their need for the defenses, rather than attacking the defense itself.
If your baby is crying for some reason, what will likely happen if you yell at him or her to stop crying? That’s right – they’ll scream even louder.
However, if you focus on meeting the need underneath the crying - offer food, help them fall asleep, comfort them, then they can let go of their reactions to distress and relax back into a comfortable, even, joyful state. That is a baby’s nature, and underneath all of our defenses, that is our essential nature as adults - relaxed joyfulness.
Having said that, I should also point out our responsibility to RECEIVE the gift of safety that our partners may be offering to us. An example, I'll share is when I dated a man who was so wounded from his childhood, that he took almost anything like an attack.
I might have said something neutral to this man such as, "Wow, it sure is a beautiful day." He would furrow his brow and say, "What? Do you think I’m stupid? Like I don’t notice it’s a beautiful day?"
If only he was able to see me as safe, he would not have heard my words as an implied attack. He would have known my words were simply innocent comments. Ultimately, his intense habitual need to protect himself ended up protecting him from what could have been a supportive and healthy relationship.
So, take a chance today in your relationship by asking yourself these questions:
Am I really better off defending myself in this way?
Might I approach the situation differently?
Can I see the need behind my partner's defenses?
Do I have the courage to let myself be loved?
Jill Wolf (fka Jill Fein Baker), LCSW is Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Illinois, a member of the Academy of Clinical Social Workers with a Masters in Social Work from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Jill is also an Advanced Clinician in Imago Therapy, a Workshop Presenter for couples and individuals, a Consultant and a Faculty Candidate with the Imago International Training Institute.After seeing Harville Hendrix on The Oprah Winfrey Show In 1989, she attended his "Getting the Love You Want" workshop for couples.
Jill said, "Like many wives, I dragged my reluctant husband to the workshop so Harville could fix him. I soon discovered how much work I actually had to do. Of course, that was really a blessing in disguise, because I didn't even like the person I had become in that marriage and didn’t understand how to be any different. I was fascinated by the Imago theory and tools and realized they had immense potential benefit, both personally and professionally. I, then eagerly began training with Dr. Hendrix."Jill was certified as an Imago therapist by Dr. Hendrix in June of 1990, one of the first 5 therapists in the Chicago area to become certified. Together with her colleagues, they founded the Institute for Imago Relationship Therapy of Greater Chicago, a professional training and support organization.
Jill has also trained with Dr. John Gottman, author of "Seven Principles of Successful Marriages," as well as Pat Love, Ed.D. author of "Hot Monogamy." Additionally, Jill has trained with Dr. Steven Stosny and received certification to teach his groundbreaking anger management tool, HEALS™.Jill’s private practice reflects the wisdom of her educational background and practical experience to help couples heal and grow their damaged relationships. Check out Jill’s website: quantumlove.com