Tag Archives: Gottman

Please people out of love, not defensiveness

Thanks to David McElroy

A man reluctantly agreed to marriage counseling. When he got to the session, resistance was written all over his body language. She predictably got the ball rolling with a string of criticisms which she assumed I would consider well-intentioned facts. I turned to him and wondered out loud what he was feeling. He said, “I’m the one who organized this therapy.” She said, “You wouldn’t have done anything if I hadn’t nagged you, like I usually have to.” He said, “It is impossible to please you.” Their defensive exchange quickly arrived at deeper understanding. But it doesn’t always go that way.

Defensiveness

The Gottmans include defensiveness as the third horseman of their Four Horsemen of marriage apocalypse. They define it as “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” Many people become defensive when they are being criticized. It might be more effective if they just said “Ouch.” But what they usually do is take an eye for an eye and respond with blame. The husband above did not listen to the legitimate complaint behind his wife’s criticism, he justified himself by shifting the blame to her for not recognizing his efforts.

We have all been defensive. When any close relationship is on the rocks, it is a good time to notice what is important to you and what scares you. You are probably defending it the way you do that. The storms of intimacy have a way of uncovering what we might keep hidden. What is hidden by us or from us is often well-defended.

We hate feeling exposed. We rarely start off talking about what we keep hidden because we prefer it hidden or are no longer conscious of what we hide. When someone considered why their mind went blank when certain subjeccts came up, he noticed a little person in a subterranean control room getting a command when he was threatened to, “Shut the gates!” We all have a “switch” of sorts that activates our defenses.

Acting defensively is usually a knee-jerk reaction. We all have defense mechanisms we organized when were very young to make sure we survived. These behaviors usually involve our deepest emotions, which we may or may not be conscious of. But the behaviors are very familiar and feel crucial. We have a childish commitment to them.

When you feel unjustly accused or threatened in some way, you usually first try to get your partner to back off. You defend yourself in a reasoned way. Easy-to-see defensiveness is shifting the blame. We say, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” The Gottman’s have a good antidote for de-escalating a relatively superficial power struggle. They teach us to accept our own responsibility. If you have a problem, check with yourself, first.

If you are activated by certain situations over and over, it is likely your partner is hitting that button in your unconscious where you have a deep need to feel cared for and it is not happening. For instance, if I already feel unworthy and you criticize me, I will get defensive. Actually, if you just point a finger at me and start a sentence with “You!” I will probably feel defensiveness rise up.

Have you noted the last time you were defensive yet? Have you noted the effects of your own and others’ defensiveness in your life? If not, now would be a good time.

A favorite Christian mechanism: reaction formation

In power struggles, it is usually the most powerless people who think they have to exercise the most power and bear the most burdens. Strong people feel fine about being strong and doing things strongly, perhaps with little self-awareness or compassion. Powerless, fragile, wounded, or traumatized people often feel alone against strong forces and come up with all sorts of ways to protect themselves. I wish all this defending were invented by adults; it would be easier to see. But most of it gets built before have much ability to think about what we are doing. We are surviving. But even as asults we often react like powerless children when we are most distressed.

The definitions the Gottmans use above for how couples are defensive are quite accurate. But they are also oversimplified. For instance, I think one of the greatest defenses a child learns is to appear to be defenseless, to appear compliant or pleasing. Rather than expressing themselves to ignorant or inattentive parents they discover a pleasing personage (Tournier)/persona (Jung) which engenders some validation of their worth, or at least gets them fed. You may have tried to be pleasing enough to avoid the violence lurking in the household or to be more pleasing than a sibling to get a better share of limited resources. Many children begin to unleash themselves from this form of defense with the terrible twos when they explore the boundaries of what they are being schooled to obey. Others just perfect their false self and even forget how furious they are with how relationships hurt and shame them.

I think many of my Christian clients are working out this subtle form of self-defense. They have been well-schooled that causing conflict with parents or the church system is a big no-no. So they defend their place in the family or the larger system by looking like they are being good while seething inside (or being depressed because they don’t know they are seething) — this is the seed thought of many semi-autobiographical novels, right? Freud called this mechanism “reaction formation.” You might feel guilt or shame so you act out the opposite of what you feel by looking compliant or self-assured, effectively hiding what you fear to have exposed. The classic example Google will immediately tell you is of the elementary boy who bullies a girl because he can’t deal with the attraction he feels. I think I remember blushing when a playground friend accused me of liking the girl I had just beaned with a four-square ball.

Christians are notoriously seen as repressed hypocrites because they never allow their true feelings to despoil their appropriate behavior. When a child learns they are powerless against their abusive or neglectful parents, they may adopt the persona that works for their best interests, hopeless of ever being truly seen. When such a persona marries, they surprise their partner when a person does not show up. I suffer for people who have a mate pointing a finger at them when all they are trying to do is please them. They’re like the poor man who said, “You can’t be pleased.” Being pleasing was the main weapon he had to use in the power struggle and he is disappointed it does not work.

Roman sacrifice: Suovetaurile

Try not to find your defenses in the Bible

For many church people, reaction formation seems like a tenet of faith. If you want to find it, you can read it into many scripture passages. For instance, look at Romans 15:15: 

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” NRSV

I think this is easily interpreted to say, “Jesus did not please himself, but others. So you should please others, not yourself. That’s love. And such love will be rewarded. Don’t please yourself if you want to go to heaven.”

When I was young, some teacher taught me the way to J-O-Y is Jesus, others, yourself, and they meant in that order. I instinctively put the three words in an inclusive circle, but my teacher definitely meant it as a hierarchy. Other teachers left off the Y altogether and encouraged me to annihilate or at least severely discipline myself for Jesus; these days some people call that mentality “cruciform.” Even though Jesus says you lose yourself to find yourself, and Paul says he leaves his false self to receive a true one in Christ, many Christians spend a lifetime denying themselves and presenting the same false compliance they did as a child, often feeling the depressing or anxiety-causing effects of resenting how they are never recognized for all they do and are.

Love out of love

We have seen a lot of angry Christians on the screen in the past few years. I think they drive people out of the church with their reaction formation. They are obviously angry, but they think they are behaving in the loving way Jesus would prefer, and saving people from sin. Not acknowledging I am miserable or being curious about why, while I insist I am just trying to please you, quickly undermines trust in any relationship. When you cause such suffering, don’t blame your mate for persecuting you like Jesus was.

If you read the whole account that leads up to the often-misinterpreted snippet of Romans, above, you’ll see that Paul acknowledges the weakness of people who are frightened by pagan meat. He doesn’t tell them to eat it and pretend they like it. To the strong who are just doing whatever they want, eating whatever they bless and feeling blessed, he says to attend to the dark side of the strength they have – the side which would ignore the poor for the pleasure of their own freedom or power.

If, when you please me, you are mainly trying to get loved, I will feel that. If you care for me because you are defending yourself, I will probably know that, eventually, too. We won’t be tuned in to each other because you won’t really be there, just the persona you think pleases me. If you are having a similar relationship with God, same results, by the way. You might not be so aware of it, but I will probably pick up on the anger and resentment you really feel, which you try to hide behind your appropriate behavior. What’s more, I will likely feel like I should be helping you in your project to “love” me, because you will be even more angry or depressed if you don’t succeed at it. Your success means I accepted your sacrifice of your true self for me as of supreme value.

I’d rather you loved me out of love not defensiveness.

Criticism is undermining relationships like never before

Some of my clients are especially adept at honestly describing their motivation. In couples therapy, one marriage partner said it was important to be the kind of mate who could pop an inflated ego. So their mate has to endure coming home with a story about some victory or blessing only to have their partner sift out some fault or problem to criticize. I could relate. I grew up with parents who were sure they should “take me down a peg or two” when I needed it and told me so. They thought criticism was an important way to develop me.

This “peg” thing appears in literature starting in the 1500’s, but no one quite knows where it came from. It might be about someone hoisting their own flag above another on a ship. Its appearance coincides with the rise of individual freedom and responsibility in Europe and the new scientific examination of everything that is now the basis for most thinking. By now, “taking people down” or even “taking them out” is seen as a virtue, as if expertly examining someone is a favor to bestow.  Everyone is a critic, like grumpy old Muppets in the theater box taking down Miss Piggy a peg, or Jerry Seinfeld teaching us to take down everyone.

So it is not unusual to have a couple committed to criticism as if it were a right or an obligation! One partner may not always be as vocal as the other. But their resentment and withdrawal as they “try not to be critical” still gets the point across.

Criticism infects love like a virus. Through their enormous research, the Gottman’s identified the “four horsemen” of marriage apocalypse. Criticism is the first one on their list. On their blog they say,

Because criticism is the first horseman, fighting off your urge to criticize can hold the other horsemen (defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) at bay. And behind every complaint lays a wish, a longing. To work towards constructive solutions and mutual fulfillment, you must both make an effort to let go of grudges and bitterness. You must give your partner the opportunity to try to “fix it” or to make a repair attempt. Instead of attacking with “you” statements and immediately putting your partner on the defensive, you must allow them to do something that may make a positive difference.

Many of my clients are not deeply Christian, but it would help them fight off the urge to criticize if they were. Marriage is a wonderful laboratory for personal development if you see it that way — as opposed to a constant affront to justice and proper thinking. When Paul talks about marriage he sees it as the same kind of relationship Christ has with the church – a relationship of unwarranted submission to the self-giving glory of love.

Pastors are run out by criticism

I am happy this did not happen to me when I was a pastor (maybe I was not listening), but, like in the churches Paul planted, people in the church judge each other mercilessly these days, often in the name of righteousness. The poor pastors, and other leaders, are like lightning rods for the storms of criticism that sweep over communities in the United States like an aspect of some kind of spiritual climate change.

Tom Ranier who has been writing about church leadership for decades, now, says in his blog

Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly. One pastor recently shared with me the number of criticisms he receives are five times greater than the pre-pandemic era. Church members are worried. Church members are weary. And the most convenient target for their angst is their pastor.

Just like you might want to stop taking down your mate instead of building them up, you might want to love your leader and the members of your church like Christ loves you.

My clients who are professionals working in the church or Christian nonprofits often complain about feeling like fish in a barrel getting injured by someone taking an easy shot. Their critics should be out changing the world, but they abuse the easy intimacy of the church to vent their angst on people who love them. There is an ongoing debate about whether criticism motivates people in the workplace better than praise. But I think most therapists see how criticism mostly causes entrenched defensiveness and silences people. It is best used for coercion, not liberation. Church leaders don’t want to quit, but if someone shoots at them every day, they probably will.

Crítica, engraving by Julio Ruelas, ca. 1907

It is often a projection of the inner critic

Several times I have heard of a client’s dream in which there was a plot going on to murder someone. One good man said the message they got from such a dream was that they really needed to “step up their game” and stop being so critical. They were killing people with words! I thought that was a good takeaway. But I also thought they could see their dream as an interior process by which their unconscious thoughts were getting sorted. It was possible that they were considering killing unaccepted elements of themselves!

In fact, an inner critic is  hard at work in most of us all day (and night) telling us our flag is hoisted too high or too low, or maybe both. The feelings caused by that voice are so intolerable we often “project” them on some situation or person. We can’t stand it, so we put it on someone else. We can’t stand the blame we feel so we blame someone else. We don’t want to need forgiveness, so we produce a logical justice issue we think we can work out without it.

We’re often in a tragic cycle. We criticize ourselves for having an overactive inner critic! We end up in charge of dispatching this malady, or hiding the fact that we only appear to have done so. One of my clients said, “I feel like I am cheating if I stop criticizing myself.” Jesus did not say from the cross “You’ve got to step up your game.” I am surprised I have to make an argument that the cross represents self-giving love, that forgiveness is a gift which cannot be deserved, that resurrection is the final statement that the powers are not in control and neither are you.

The internet is an echo chamber of criticism

Why has this period of relentless criticism come upon us? It is connected to COVID-19, of course, but the pandemic just accelerated trends already in place. We would have likely gotten to this point in the next three to five years regardless.

Maybe when we started ordering all that take out food and as we read even more Yelp reviews it became that much more evident to us that we, personally, might be liable to  negative reviews ourselves if we made ourselves known. It is what people do. Maybe our inner critics were at work harder than ever. We were more likely to anonymously get ourselves out there and project some blame on Facebook. Some of us got canceled and most of us talked so much about people getting canceled the Republicans made “cancel culture” a campaign issue.

I ran across The Geeks Under Grace talking about the spread of internet criticism. They are Christian gamers and into everything about computers and the internet. On their blog they were trying to get meme warriors to stop raking over every presentation of Christianity in media for evidence of inaccuracy they should criticize. I appreciated their obscure (for some of us) reference to Dwight Schrute:

I do understand the temptation to offer criticism to everything you see. It can come from a virtuous heart in wanting to ensure the God we love is accurately portrayed. In our minds we sound intelligent for (what we perceive is) correctly understanding theology, but when we do this with insignificant details, we come across looking like Dwight Schrute from The Office. We all love to watch Dwight for his quirkiness and how he interacts with problems created by his coworkers, but I hardly think many of us want to be perceived as Dwight.

For those who don’t watch The Office, the Christian Dwight would be the one who comments on everything pertaining to Christianity with rhetoric that they’ve heard from others. Any misuse of anything must be corrected at that exact moment. “False! There are basically two schools of thought.”

An 8th grader friend recently took themselves off Facebook altogether because they just could not stand all the criticism. Some people have stopped watching the commentary on MSNBC and Fox for similar reasons. The internet makes everyone an expert and no one an authority. The criticism floating around in it is not grounded in relationship or community and feeds on words like cancer. I think that is another aspect of the left-brain bondage that has overtaken us.

What to do?

This piece is not another call to “step up your game.”  It is mostly a call to stop killing yourself. If you follow Jesus and you think God is looking at you critically, I think you might need to look at the cross more closely. You are the beloved of God, not innately an object of contempt. Not cooperating with your inner critic would be a good first step to releasing everyone from your criticism and gaining some resistance to the waves of criticism the society delivers daily.

Askers vs. Guessers: Where is Jesus on the spectrum?

A  dialogue about Ask culture vs. Guess culture has been going around the internet for about ten years, now. I finally caught up with it when one of my friends posted a note about it on Facebook. The material kind of hit me like a brick. As more of an asker, I have been having misunderstandings with guessers for a long time! It would have helped to name these distinctive ways to relate earlier. So I hope my lesson helps you, in case you also missed the dialogue.

Identify Askers and Guessers to Request Favors More Effectively

Ask and Guess Culture

The dialogue got started with a web posting by Andrea Donderi which achieved “legs” and still maintains a following. We are raised, the theory says, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favor, a pay raise, an overnight at your house – fully accepting your answer may be no. “There’s no harm in asking” would be their proverb. Or maybe “Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” People who are assertive like this can seem aggressive or careless to guessers.

Because in Guess culture, one avoids putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. A key skill in Guess culture/families/relationships is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer – like when I enter the room with a banana and my granddaughter says “I like bananas.” Even if one gets an offer that requires no request, the offer may be genuine or pro forma. (“Oh,” I say. “You would like the banana I got for myself.”) So it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept what might be an offer. “Don’t ask and you won’t be disappointed” might be the guesser’s proverb. Or maybe, “I shouldn’t have to tell you to be considerate.” Less assertive people can seem passive-aggressive or critical to askers.

Binary comparisons are more fun than accurate. So let’s avoid forming too many conclusions and let the reality sink in. We are all probably leaning into one of these camps most of the time. My mother was a committed guesser. She drove down the road shouting at cars, “Couldn’t you see I was here? How inconsiderate!” Lack of consideration was probably the first deadly sin on her list. She thought we should have imagined how she would react before she entered the living room and saw a frosty glass making a ring on the end table. I think I am considerate until I run into Mennonites (and I love them so I do!) and maybe Canadians, I’m finding out.

An asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a guesser will probably hear such an ask as presumptuous and resent the agony it causes them to say no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may actually be an overdemanding boor, but maybe they are just an asker who’s assuming you might decline if you need to. If you’re a guesser, you might hear many requests as a demand. You can tell already that it would be a mistake to make this trait either/or. We’re likely all on a spectrum. You can see how true that is when you look at the varieties of cross-cultural awkwardness we feel. Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because Japan is a Guess culture, yet they often experience Russians as rude, because they’re diehard askers.

I was speaking to a therapist friend about this dialogue and we pondered whether the “pursuers” in a marital relationship are usually askers and the “withdrawers” are more likely to be guessers. Neither way needs to be labeled “wrong.” But either way usually feels wrong to the other way. Self-help writers try to solve the problem by insisting we all become askers, training us to both ask and refuse with relish. The mediation expert William Ury  recommends guessers memorize “anchor phrases” such as “that doesn’t work for me.” They think everyone needs to figure out a key transaction in all relationships: what do you want and how much is someone willing to give? So, to them, Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. Why should the rest of us be waiting to see what guessers think or feel about us without them telling us? — a good percentage of us are not that emotionally intelligent, so we are often wandering into a minefield of awkwardness and rejection set up by guessers.

The distinctions need to get some nuance to be helpful

The general categories: askers and guessers, resonate with me. But the application of the traits vary, according to one’s context.

  • Maybe we ask strangers and close friends.The polite indirection of Guess culture is a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity. We preserve ambiguity in social relationships when there’s an intermediate level of intimacy. Relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks. We do this precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous We need to make a “bid” and see if we are bidden. Like animals circling one another, we need to negotiate where we fall on the intimacy gradient. To ask too directly before we know where we stand can seem rude because it effectively demands a final verdict on a work in progress.
  • Like I said, it is not so black and white. Perhaps we should have a more situationally-fluid approach. The problem with assuming one way is better than another is it ignores that in almost everything “it all depends.” The “requester” (whether of asker or guesser type) is more in need of a “yes” or “no” response from the “requestee” (again, of either type) at some times more than others. I’m not sure how you asked for your first formal dance date, but I blurted it out like the asker I am. Likewise, a requestee is more likely to say “yes” or “no” at some times more than others. If I find out someone just lost their cat I won’t be bringing up the personal issue I called to talk about. It makes sense that for some things we’ll need to be an asker and a guesser at other times. Sometimes I need to act and sometimes I need to wait, whether it feels right to me or not.
  • Sex tends to complicate the dialogue. With sex there is a lot more guessing. People do small things that are “bids for connection.” John and Julie Gottman coined that useful phrase to describe how we  attempt to get attention, affection, and/or acceptance. These bids are rarely direct “asks.” Maybe it is just human or maybe it is society shaping us, but we are often hesitant to ask for our emotional needs to be met in an open and vulnerable way. Sometimes we are more direct than other times. But most of the time we might share a story to see if our partner is listening, or say “Hey, look at that!” to see if we are on the same page, or say, “Hey, look at what I just did or am doing” like your child going off the diving board. Maybe the bid is sending a text or giving a “like,” or reaching out for a hug or a squeeze, or talking about a common interest, or expressing a concern. These are all very subtle asks, guessing (and hoping) our loved one will respond favorably. Maybe we are all doomed to be askers while our hearts are always guessing.
File:The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, from The Story of Christ MET DP855490.jpg
The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes — Georg Pencz (1500-50)

What does Jesus say? Ask or guess?

I think Jesus is with us all along spectrum, from assertive askers to passive guessers, as usual. But he’s moving us toward ASK. On the one hand he definitely commands us to “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matt. 7:7). But I know he is not telling us to ask out of our natural capacity. For most of us, in one context or another, being vulnerable enough to ask for what we need feels like we’re risking our lives. If Jesus wanted to condemn us, he would tell us that the criteria for receiving his love is to ask for it, and ask properly. But Jesus does not want to condemn us. In his grace is the place we become askers, because we come to believe we are safe enough to ask.

Because, on the other hand, Jesus operates a lot in Guess culture fashion. He asks a lot of people who have given up: “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6) and “What would you like from me?” (Mark 10:51) And he says to those who don’t think they need to ask for anything or wouldn’t dare ask, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:40). But for most of us Jesus hangs out with us all the time putting out one subtle bid after another which do not confront us or scare us into being defensive. The askers are often up in front of the church asking Jesus to return quickly and asking us to do something. Meanwhile the Spirit of Jesus is moving through the rows comforting resistant and doubtful people with hope that what they fear will not be required of them today. The askers think they are waiting on Jesus; the guessers are more likely to appreciate how Jesus waits on them. And since we are all askers and guessers at times, isn’t it great that Jesus will wait just long enough to bring everything to right?!

I think I am more of an asker, but that’s because of Jesus. I still roll around the freeway irritated with inconsiderate people, like Mom did. And I am fairly resolute in waiting for my intimates to accept my tiny bids at connection, even though I don’t approve of myself for not trusting their love! I think Jesus is frank about calling us to boldly ask because our true selves are especially underdeveloped in that area. We either don’t ask or we ask with wrong motives. Like prodigal children the best we can think to ask is to be God’s  day laborer, the lowest worker there is, not a restored child. So we have a lot to learn and a lot more to feel about these distinct movements in our hearts and the interactions that tend to trap us every day. What a blessing that Jesus asks us to follow Him and then follows us along our way, guessing our every need, as we learn to do it!