Tips From A San Francisco Couples Therapist: Stop The Attack-Defend Pattern

Gottman Method Couples Therapists help you shift your communication.

We coach you during sessions and then teach you to coach yourselves at home. I’ll share one of the most important skills we teach couples.

Many couples fall into something we call the “attack-defend” pattern. In attack-defend, one partner criticizes the other, and then the other partner responds with defensiveness. The criticizing person amps up their criticism in order to be heard. Then the defending person becomes more defensive. The more defensive that person becomes, the more critical the other becomes. And on and on. When this pattern happens, neither person feels heard or understood.

Criticism looks like this: “You always…” You never…” “You’re such a…” (saying something that characterizing the person).

Defensiveness looks like this: “Yes, but you do that too.”  “But I was just….” (or in any way making excuses or arguing against the complaint).

The more you can decrease criticism and defensiveness in your relationship, the better your relationship will be. The Gottman Institute’s research shows that criticism and defensiveness are 2 of the behaviors that predict divorce and unhappiness in relationships. The more these 2 behaviors show up, the more likely a couple is to divorce.

So what do you do about these behaviors? You learn their remedies.

The remedy to criticism is to make a specific complaint and request.

When you make statements in this way, you’re focusing on yourself rather than characterizing your partner. You might say: “This is what’s bothering me.” or you might say “I’m really upset about this, and I’d really love it if you’d….”

When you make a specific complaint and request, you avoid saying “you always….” or “you never…..”

The remedy to defensiveness is to slow down and listen.

Look at the situation through your partner’s eyes. You might say “I could see how you would feel that way.” Express that you care about their issue, just by listening. It’s ok to slow down and just say “I hear you. Let me think about this.”

When you slow down and listen, you avoid saying “Yes, but…”

That attack-defend pattern can seem to take on a life of its own, but when even one partner is using a remedy, the pattern weakens. When BOTH partners practice these remedies, the attack-defend pattern begins to disappear.

If you’re ready to talk to an experienced couples therapist, call us at (415) 534-4051 or schedule a free and confidential phone consultation with one of us