Developing Happiness as a Couple – Part 2

Happiness as a couple grows when partners build a store of goodwill through simple gestures and shared knowledge of what matters to each other. In this two-part article, Part 1 looked at ways to build up goodwill. Here in Part 2 we look what erodes positive feelings in a partnership, and what to do instead.

Happiness as a couple is in trouble when partners become defensive.

Defensiveness is one of the biggest destroyers of contentment and openhearted communication. It is a builder of resentment and it is the enemy of happy, secure love.

How to Recognize Defensiveness that Threatens Happiness

Defensiveness comes hidden in many forms. It may be an automatic response if you feel attacked.  It may have been part of family life while you grew up. It may be your automatic response if you believe it’s terrible for you to be found in the wrong.

Defensive Responses Can Take Various Forms

What does defensiveness sound and feel like? It can come in a response that is a counter-attack.

Partner One: “You promised to do the dishes, and they are still waiting!”

Partner Two: “Well, did you get the bills paid yet?”

Of course, a counter-attack usually leads to an escalating argument.

Defensiveness can be deflection:

Partner One: “I’m worried about my brother, he may lose his job.”

Partner Two: “Well, look at those Christmas lights!”(Partner One likely feels dismissed.)

Defensiveness can be denial of feelings.

Partner One: “I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job in helping Amanda with her dance practice, she’s falling behind.”

Partner Two: “You worry too much. She’s just a kid. Dance should be fun.” (Partner One may feel frustrated and alone in dealing with Amanda.)

A defensive response may also include:

  • denying responsibility
  • making excuses
  • naming a partner’s negative thoughts as if mind reading
  • repeating yourself
  • whining, getting angry or frowning

A Defensive Attitude Shows In Body Language

Body language also signals when defensive feelings are active: we may see our partner turning away, folding arms protectively, avoiding eye contact, or leaving the room.

When we feel attacked, we have three choices: fight, flight or freeze. These are reflexes – an instant response without thinking.  The emotionally intelligent alternative can take hard work. It means taking a breath before replying. It means acknowledging what the other feels before sharing your own feelings. It can mean looking a little deeper into your own fears and way of facing emotions.

Why Defensiveness Harms Our Happiness, and What to Do Instead

When defensiveness really hurts is when we reach for our partner and feel pushed away, or misunderstood, or blamed. Then attachment distress can set in, and things get intense.

What are the alternatives to defensiveness? Instead of fighting back, be present, empathetic, openminded, curious, and share your own experience. Try again to keep to your commitments.

Alternatives To Defensive Replies

Let’s replay some of the defensive replies above, with a new response. When a promise goes unfulfilled what can you do?  Try to reflect your partner’s frustration, and offer a new time to get it done. These can go a long way. Or you can admit your own disappointment too.

Partner One: “You promised to do the dishes, and they are still waiting!”

Partner Two: “I feel bad I didn’t get to the dishes! I had to chase down the dog, and I didn’t manage my time well.”

How to Reflect What You Hear With Empathy

Reflecting your partner’s feelings can be easy for some and hard for others. You might be quick to find just the right words most of the time. Or you may struggle.  If words fail you, a sympathetic, “umm, that sounds hard” can confirm to your partner that you’re tuned in and trying to understand.

You can also use your partner’s words.

Partner One: “I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job in helping Amanda with her dance practice, she’s falling behind.”

Partner Two: “So you’re worried Amanda is falling behind.”

Address Feelings Instead of Defending Deeds

If you’re working to do better at putting feelings into words, start listening for SOS feelings. SOS feelings are like warning flags to say: “the waves (feelings) here are getting too high, and I need something from you.”  SOS feelings include frustration, anger, resentment and sometimes hurt.

Your partner needs you to listen for the core feelings: sadness, loneliness, fear, or shame. These are the emotions that run under the surface of the high waves.  Naming these really help bring calm and good will to you and your partner.

The emotions behind the anger and frustration are the feelings your partner really needs you to ask about, name, validate and help with. That’s the opposite of defensiveness, and builds a stronger bond.

Some negative feelings happen in every relationship.  By working to name and help each other through them, you build up the appreciation and love that happy couples enjoy.

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