Being Defensive Can Come
It is oftentimes easier to become defensive during conflict in a relationship than it is to be vulnerable. This is NOT A SURPRISE!
Typically one or both partners are already feeling hurt, hence the conflict, and the idea of further exposing oneself may seem self-destructive. So people default to defensiveness, which serves to create a protective wall around oneself and which prevents oneself from looking at their own contribution to the conflict. Now this can really be destructive to a relationship. One's defensiveness is likely to be met with the other's defensiveness and communication is shut down.
The more productive option:
What Is It & How Do I Cultivate it?
There is not one definition of mutual vulnerability. The term has been used in psychoanalytic literature, education discourse, historical exegeses, and other disciplines. At the core of mutual vulnerability is the joint willingness to surrender one's desire to remain in a position of power.
When thinking about couples in conflict, one can imagine one or both partners feeling hurt and vulnerable. This can at times result in one or both partners wanting to close up and protect themselves from further hurt...the furthest thing from surrendering power. Each partner may have thoughts such as, "I am not letting my guard down" or may be suspicious of what their partner will do next. Sometimes this position of defensiveness may not even be conscious.
Such a situation is not conducive to open and honest communication, which is necessary if the couple is going to come to some resolution of the conflict. Mutual vulnerability or a willingness to let go of this defensive position can open up space for dialogue but can also allow for emotional intimacy and understanding of each other.
This all sounds lovely but is not always the easiest thing to accomplish, particularly when there has been a lot of hurt and injury in the relationship. However, there are certain factors that can be put in place that may make it feel safer for a person to let their guard down a bit, and that may foster an environment of safety.
Cut Out the Criticism: This is one of the most obvious things a couple can do and yet one of the hardest. Nobody is going to open up and share how they feel if they expect to be cut down immediately before even being heard. Even if one is heard, it is unfortunately not that uncommon that your response will be met with criticism. Cut it out! Find a way to respond to what you heard and share how you are feeling without criticizing your partner for having his or her feelings. And no name calling!!
Practice Listening & Ask for Clarification: It is astonishing how sometimes people think they heard and understood correctly but do not realize that they distorted what they have heard to fit their expectations. Sometimes you may think you are so sure that you know what your partner is going to say that you don't even really listen, and in your mind have already jumped to thinking about how you will respond to what you think they have said. A nice way to disrupt this non productive pattern is to wait until your partner has completely finished speaking and then repeat back to them exactly what they have just said. Then wait for your partner to clarify if necessary and let you know if you heard correctly. Only after that should you share your response.
Take a Risk: The truth is that if you share something vulnerable and take a non defensive stance, you make it more likely that your partner will reciprocate than if you started with a defensive position.
Empathize & Acknowledge: You know how hard it is to take a risk, so if your partner does so as well, it is important to acknowledge it and reinforce it! Thank your partner for sharing their feelings with you. Ask yourself if you can relate in any way with what your partner is sharing and perhaps share that as well. Even if you do not agree with what your partner is saying, let them know that respectfully and acknowledge that you are aware that it was not an easy thing for them to share with you.
Practice: This is NOT a one time, one step process. Conflict and hard times will present themselves throughout the duration of a couple's relationship and in order for a couple to thrive they need to maintain an overall openness to mutual vulnerability. That is not to say that at times both or one partner will not default to defensiveness. We are all human. However, the key is for a couple to be able to learn how to eventually return to a mutually vulnerable moment and to move forward. The more one practices these steps during conflict-free times, the easier it will be to implement during conflict-ridden moments.
Don't Wait Too Long to Get Help: In certain circumstances, simply being more mindful of being mutually vulnerable is enough to move the couple out of conflict. However, there are times when couples are so stuck that they just cannot change their patterns of interaction. In these instances, the couple will require professional help. Additionally, it is important to note that in cases where one or both partners have experienced significant trauma in their lives, the idea of being vulnerable in a relationship may be too overwhelming and it might even be harmful to attempt to engage in mutual vulnerability without the help of a mental health professional. Rule of thumb: when in doubt consult with a professional.
If you and your partner are finding it difficult to resolve your conflict or find yourself persistently hurting each other, it is likely best to reach out for some professional help. If you have general questions about therapy, you may find the FAQ page useful.