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How to deal with a defensive spouse
In this edition of LIFEadvice Coach Kim answers two questions on the same topic: What do you do if your spouse gets defensive and won't listen or compromise? - photo by Kim Giles
Question 1:

My wife seems unwilling or unable to find mutually acceptable solutions when we disagree over doing something. She insists she deserves to have things her way and expects me to buy in to her view, and give up any desire for how I would like things done. What is going on here and how do I respond?

Question 2:

When my spouse asks for my opinion or input on things he doesn't seem to really want it. Unless I am totally gung-ho for his idea or plan, he gets upset and says I never listen to him, even when he has specifically asked what I think. Then, he pulls away and acts like I've done something horrible, that I need to apologize or make up for something. When he acts this way, I feel completely discounted, ignored and un-valued. I also feel betrayed when he asks what I think and then gets angry at me for telling him. My choices seem to be to go along with what he thinks and act excited and don't offer my own opinion, which seems like selling myself out and ensuring that my input/ideas are never part of our plans. Or, continue to answer honestly and get blamed and punished for doing so. I feel trapped and uncertain of how to do things so that there is a better outcome.


Both of you are having what looks like communication problems in your marriage, but the underlying reason you cant communicate with your spouses is that there are fear of failure issues (the fear of not being good enough) in the way.

Let me explain this by giving you a couple of principles of human behavior. When you understand these principles, your spouse's behavior will make more sense.

Principle 1: Most of us attach our value as a person to our thoughts, ideas and opinions. This means if people value our thoughts, ideas and opinions and agree with us, we feel validated and valued. If someone disagrees with us, we mistakenly feel they dont value us as a person. This causes us pain because it triggers our fear of failure.

Principle 2: When someone is experiencing fear of failure on the conscious or subconscious level, they become completely focused on themselves and on getting validation and reassurance to quiet their fear. In this place they feel threatened, which will make them selfish, defensive and unable to listen to or show up for you.

Principle 3: Everyone on the planet suffers from the fear of failure to some degree on a daily basis. This fear is the root cause of most bad behavior. Whenever someone is behaving in a defensive way, you should step back and see them accurately as scared. You must recognize that what they need is validation and reassurance.

You can use these principles to help you handle conversations with your spouse in a better way. The next time your spouse gets defensive because you dont agree with them, try the following steps:

  1. Understand that your spouse is having a self-esteem crisis. They are afraid that you disagreeing with them means you think they are dumb or wrong. They are taking your disagreement as a personal insult. They are also subconsciously afraid they arent good enough.
  2. What is needed here is validation and reassurance. That is what every person behaving badly needs. All bad behavior is a request for love. (The problem is, bad behavior doesnt make us want to validate or love them. It can be hard to put your egos desire to defend aside and give this person love and reassurance, but doing so would defuse the whole situation.)
  3. Stop the conversation for a minute and put your hands on their shoulders, look them in the eye to make sure they are hearing you. Tell them what a wonderful, amazing, smart, good person they are. Tell them how lucky you are to be married to them. Tell them why they are appreciated, admired, respected and wanted in detail.
  4. Then, explain that opinions are just ideas, they dont mean anything about a persons value. When you have different opinions it doesnt mean anyone is right, better, smarter or more valued than anyone else. Differences in opinion dont make anyone wrong, dumb or bad, either. They are just ideas in our heads and we must not let these ideas trigger fears that would drive a wedge between us. We must make sure love always comes first. Our love for each other is more important than this issue.
  5. Tell them you love them and they have nothing to fear from your different ideas. Tell them you honor and respect their right to think and feel the way they do and you know they will respect and honor your right back.
  6. Remind them that no issue is more important than maintaining a loving connection with your spouse. Nothing is more important than love. Figure out what a love-based compromise looks like for both of you or give your spouse their way as a loving gift (without resentment or sacrifice).
Unfortunately, most relationships are not based in love. They are ego alliances born of fear and loneliness, because we entered the relationship needy with self-esteem issues (not whole and confident about our value). Because of this we need and expect our spouse to validate us, agree with us and heal our fear, which is something they can't do because we have control over it.

We also expect our spouse to sacrifice themselves for us, and when they arent willing to do that (because their needs are important, too) we cast them as the bad guy, which makes us feel like the good guy temporarily, helping our own fear of failure. But you must understand that expecting your spouse to sacrifice for you and making them responsible for your self-esteem is not love.

Continual sacrifice is about scarcity, lack and deprivation, and it breeds resentment and guilt. Instead, we must allow our spouse to have a healthy balance between honoring their own needs and giving gifts of love to us (which are no sacrifice because they are happily given as gifts). If my spouse cannot give me a gift of love in this moment and give me my way, that has to be immediately forgiven, because I understand I will do the same thing at times.

If you want to have a happy marriage, you both must work on your self-esteem and fear issues so you can be less needy and more giving. I have many free resources on my website to help you do this, including a "Repair your Marriage" E-book that would really help, and my book "Choosing Clarity" can guide you through eliminating the fear of failure and teach you how to have mutually validating conversations.

Remember, your value is not in question because life is a classroom, not a test. This means you need no validation from your spouse. God is the author of your value and because of this, you have nothing to fear. You need nothing from your spouse because God meets all your needs. This attitude will create a healthy relationship based in real love.

You can do this.
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