Couple Dynamics: The Attacker and the Defensive One

Actually both partners are defensive but they have very different styles. The expression The Best Defense is a Good Offense describes the style of the Attacker. When the Defensive One brings an issue or problem up to their spouse, the Attacker feels attacked and defends him or herself by attacking the Defensive One with real or imagined wrongs. The Defensive One defends himself. The interaction between them shifts from the Defensive One trying to resolve a problem between them to the Defensive One ‘on the ropes’ explaining and defending what their spouse has just accused them of. The original issue the Defensive One brought forward gets lost. The Attacker has deflected the issue so he or she no longer has to deal with it.

Scenario 1) In his business Randy does a lot of entertaining of business associates, mostly in restaurants, but often dinners at home as well. His wife Erin does not mind this although it is a lot of work. What really bothers her is that Randy changes as soon as his business associates enter the home. To her, he treats her and the children like second-class citizens. When Erin complains to Randy, he accuses her of not wanting to help him in his business and of not being a supportive wife. Erin reacts by denying his accusations. She can never get him to acknowledge her complaint so it can never be addressed. His behavior does not change. She starts to resent entertaining for her husband and resents him. Intimacy suffers.

Scenario 2) George was concerned about his children. He felt Mary was too hard on them and he tried in many different ways to bring his concern to Mary. He also felt she was too hard on him but he was more concerned about the children than himself. Every time he tried to address his concern with her she felt attacked as a mother and defended herself by attacking him. She accused him of being too lenient with the children. George knew this was true because he was trying to compensate for what he thought was her harshness and usually defended his actions. She accused him of undermining her as a parent and not standing with her as a team. She attacked his character, accusing him of being a wimp and a poor role model for the children. She attacked him for not being a good husband. If things escalated further then she attacked his family and his friends. George would end up defending himself, the kids, his family and friends. His issue got lost. He felt resentful and withdrew from the relationship. Intimacy suffered.

The Defensive One is confused. They usually do not understand what just happened. After many interactions like this one the Defensive One no longer wants to bring up an issue because they know it will be turned around on them. Now there is no way for them to address an issue. Intimacy suffers.

The Defensive One needs to shift from being defensive to standing their ground when they are attacked. This is much easier said than done. It helps if the Defensive One realizes that the Attacker is feeling vulnerable too yet is hiding it in the attack. If one does not feel vulnerable there is no reason to avoid issues your spouse brings to you.

Scenario 1) Erin learned to change how she was reacting to her husband when he attacked her. She stopped defending herself. She told him that whatever issues he has with her can be addressed another time. Right now, she was dealing with the issue of how he changed when business associates came into the home. At first Randy kept attacking her but she held her ground by saying , “That may be so but right now I’m talking to you about how you change when you have business associates over. I’m not going to address your concerns right now, I am willing to address them later. Right now I bring up an important issue that is of concern to me. I need you to hear me.”

Finally, when Randy’s attacking did not work, he reluctantly listened to what Erin had to say. During the talk he had difficult acknowledging that he was doing what she was complaining about yet after their talk, he did change. Erin was appreciative of the efforts he made to change. She was more affectionate with Randy and he really like that.

Scenario 2) George finally understood that Mary took his concerns as an attack on her as a mother. When he brought up his concerns with her he reassured her that he thought she was a good mother and he had concerns about her trying too hard to be a good mother. At first, Mary kept attacking him but George did not shift into defending himself. He stayed on the issue he was bringing up. He did not get derailed although it was very difficult for him not to shift into defending himself or just give up. Eventually Mary could hear his reassurance. She finally was able to consider George’s concerns. Mary did soften her stance with the children and George showed his appreciation with more affection and attention. Mary felt closer to him as a result. She also had more respect for him.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense is one of the most difficult dynamics between spouses to change. First, you have to realize what is going on. Awareness is the key to change. You cannot change what you do not know. If you are always defending yourself and your issues keep getting lost, this dynamic may be going on in your relationship.

When each spouse realizes their part in perpetuating the dynamic and takes responsibility for it, change is possible. Change yourself. Change your HOW. After an initial escalation, spouses usually respond to positive change with positive change, as long as there is good will in the relationship.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

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