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If You’re Defending Yourself, You’re Already Wrong

A lot of people say a lot of things about what it takes to make a relationship work. Every day, I scroll past articles on my Facebook feed featuring "5 Things You Can Do to Make Your Relationship Last" or "3 Things You Should Never, Ever Do to Your Spouse if You Don't Want a Divorce." Sometimes I click on stuff like that and sometimes I don't. Not because I don't need all the help I can get when it comes to navigating love, but most of the time the articles say the same things I've read other places.

Now that Serge and I have decided we want to make our relationship work, we spend a lot of time talking about what we did wrong when we were married and what we want to do differently now. Our divorce didn't come about because we fell out of love, it happened because we didn't know how to communicate properly and we got lost in the resulting madness. I'd wager it's that way with a lot of folks. If you love someone enough to marry and spend years with them, it's safe to assume there is a lot about that person that you really like. If nobody cheated on anyone or physically abused anyone, maybe you have something salvageable.

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While talking about how to improve our relationship the other day, Serge said something that blew my mind—one of those life realizations that immediately change your outlook on just about every interaction you have with your partner. We were talking about arguing and how we've managed to avoid that, for the most part, since we started dating, but that we would inevitably find ourselves involved in an intense disagreement, that's just the nature of lacing your life with someone else's. That led to a discussion about fighting and how, when we were married, we always argued to win. During disagreements with each other we weren't listening to what the other person was saying, we were listening to defend our own position or to go on the offensive the minute the other person stopped speaking.

"If someone is defending themselves, they're already coming from the wrong place," Serge said.

"Huh?" I didn't understand.

"What I mean is, defensiveness is the ultimate sign communication has broken down. If you're defending a position, you're no longer communicating feelings or emotions. Whether you know it or not, you've put on the gloves and you're in the ring."

When they're telling you something, when they're expressing a feeling or an emotion, even if it feels like they're accusing you of something, you need to just listen. No need to defend yourself.

I let this roll around in my head for a minute. I was taken aback at its simple brilliance. Here's the thing: If you're in a relationship hopefully it means you love and trust that person. Yeah, they may leave their dirty underwear on the floor for you to pick up and they might nag you about the way you load the dishwasher and, sure, you might not be on the same parenting page some of the time, but you've agreed to share your life with this person so you must value their thoughts, feelings and opinions, right? So when they're telling you something, when they're expressing a feeling or an emotion, even if it feels like they're accusing you of something, you need to just listen. No need to defend yourself. Their opinion is their opinion and if they feel a certain way, you need to validate that without defending yourself.

So much of my marriage to Serge was spent accusing and defending. I accused, he defended; he accused, I defended. It never stopped. We argued to win, not to understand. But now I realize that if Serge is explaining that something I do makes him feel a certain way, it's a fact. There is no disputing or defense. The way someone feels—whether or not you understand why—is a fact. We spend so much time arguing with those we love about why their feelings are wrong or don't make sense. But the truth is, there's no arguing against the way someone feels, even if you think their feelings are rational or not. And that's where most relationship interactions go wrong. People mistakenly think that someone else's feelings are negotiable.

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Serge likes to send me little texts throughout the day. Some of them are ridiculously silly and some of them are sweet but it bothers him if I don't respond right away, regardless of the nature of the text. During our marriage, I would've told him how stupid it is that he feels bad when I don't respond to a text. We're married, right? Do we really need to text throughout the day? Once or twice is cute but I'm at work and might be in the middle of a dozen things. Yeah, I see your text and it makes me smile but I can't always respond immediately. But see what happened there? I get defensive about it, even now. The thing is, how hard is it to whip off a quick response? 10 seconds? 20 seconds? Why am I going out of my way to defend not responding to his texts? It isn't my place to explain to him that his emotions are stupid, it's up to me to decide that the person I love feels a certain way about something and it's within my power to change the thing that hurts them. Do I want to do it or do I want to argue with them about how stupid I think their emotions are? This is how he feels and I need to validate his feeling as opposed to defending my action. Why not just make it a point to respond to his texts right away because I know he digs it?

Yeah, this is all pretty elementary stuff but if you think about it, most relationship entanglements are pretty basic. People want to be heard. People want to be understood. People want to feel safe, not attacked. So the next time your partner is expressing something you've done has made them feel bad/sad/mad pump the brakes before you launch into your response. The point is not to defend why you behave the way you behave but to understand how your actions affect their feelings.

I'm at work right now and I just texted Serge a selfie. He likes that kind of thing.

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