Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Defensiveness and Blame in Conflict

Over the past couple of months I've expressed frustration about how conflict is handled in my marriage.  Specifically, I've said I feel like I automatically get blamed when something goes wrong.  I started doing some research because I wanted advice on how to deal with this effectively.  I wanted my husband and I to learn to resolve conflict constructively.

Unfortunately, I didn't find the kind of advice I was looking for. While a lot of research has been done on conflict there was very little about how to respond to being verbally attacked and blamed.  I did, however, discover a few helpful tips: Avoid responding to negative emotion with negative emotion; this only escalates the conflict.  Express empathy (e.g., "I can see you are feeling hurt and angry").  And above all, try to remain calm. 

This is good advice but it seems to be asking a lot.  It is very difficult to remain calm when someone you love criticizes your very character and blames you for problems you didn't cause.  When attacked, most people automatically become defensive.  We quite naturally want to protect ourselves. A range of emotions are triggered, from fear to sadness to anger.  In the face of this emotional torrent, rational thought and clear reasoning are severely compromised. 

Not that I'm a complete hothead.  There have been times my husband blamed or criticized me that I initially remained calm.  In what seemed like a calm (but firm) voice I have replied, "Please stop blaming me."  I said things like, "It doesn't matter whose fault it is,"  "If one of us 'wins' the other loses.  That means the relationship loses," and "Let's focus on solving the problem, not on blaming each other."  My composure gradually evaporated, however, when my attempts were met with continued blame and criticism.

It occurred to me that it might be easier to remain calm and express empathy if I could understand what was motivating my husband's behavior.  You see, my husband is essentially a good man so I assumed his intent was not malicious.  Maybe there was some underlying reason for his hostility during conflict.

And so I set out to learn about "conflict behaviors."  My initial findings reinforced what I already knew: defensiveness and hostility during conflict is associated with high levels of "marital distress" and increased likelihood of divorce.  Nobody had to tell me this.  Each time a conflict went unresolved I felt a little more hopeless than the time before.  A sense of distance arose in my marriage that had not been there before.  For a marriage to work there must be away to resolve conflict. 

I then learned that "aggressive denial of responsibility" (e.g., criticism, blaming) is employed most frequently by people with fragile and/or unstable self-esteem.  I read about "contingent" self-esteem, whereby one's sense of self-worth is dependent upon maintaining certain self-imposed standards.  (What if those standards include "always being right" or "never losing an argument?"  If that were the case I was completely screwed)!

"Conflict behavior" is also related to "attachment style."  Briefly, attachment style as a concept comes from attachment theory.  Attachment theory states that an infant's relationship with his primary caregiver becomes a template for his interpersonal relationships throughout life.  A healthy, secure infant-caregiver relationship facilitates "normal" social and emotional development.  Problems in the infant-caregiver relationship disrupt social and emotional development.   Inconsistent availability and/or responsiveness to infant needs by the caregiver leads to the development of an anxious or ambivalent attachment style.  The defining feature of this attachment style is anxiety over abandonment.  Adults with an anxious/ambivalent attachment style have a higher tendency than others to display hostility during conflict, to include the use of blaming, threatening, and other verbal aggression.  When compared to adults with secure attachment, they show greater attempts to dominate conflict discussion. 

My research led me to a tentative conclusion: "defensive hostility," "criticism," "aggressive denial of responsibility," and similar "conflict escalating behaviors" stem from underlying insecurities.  (Incidentally, none of the research seems to suggest such behaviors stem primarily from "being an asshole."  So that's good news).  It is not immediately clear to me how to use this information.  Assuming my conclusion is accurate, my husband is unlikely to ever acknowledge said insecurities, perhaps not even to himself.  But perhaps just being aware will arouse my compassion in the midst of conflict.  Maybe seeing criticism as motivated by fear and anxiety will help me to take it less personally.


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  3. We bring to every interpersonal relationship our past history and the baggage attached. All you can do is change yourself, as long as you say your husband does not carry harm in every conflict, meaning it may be not to your liking but he never does things with the intent to harm. Changing yourself will in turn make him more reflective( a great back door !)
    I look at the love my sister gave her adopted boy since 3 months, who is now 14. He has a calm reaction and self-assuredness that was a direct result of intelligent parenting. Never hitting, explaining things along the way in a age appropriate way.
    I on the other hand.. had a chaotic childhood with an alcoholic, perhaps mentally ill father who never made me feel safe. I never knew what to expect, consequently have a worrisome personality that comes out in conflict. I would often wonder what I did wrong when I saw well-adjusted people. So I had to change later as I became more aware how much baggage I bring. I would see I engage in normal conflict already with a minus score. I hope this helps.


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