My husband becomes easily annoyed with me and I can’t help but become defensive. When he’s critical, I become critical back, and of course that leads to a fight. I’m wondering if there is a better way to respond to someone who is critical without things escalating into a battle. Can you help me?
You should be applauded for seeking a healthier way of responding to criticism. Many simply react reflexively and “fight fire with fire.” This never works. Fighting fire with fire simply leads to a larger fire.
You’ve already taken the first and most important step, which is to acknowledge that what you’re doing isn’t working. However, I don’t agree with your statement, “I can’t help but become defensive.” You can choose how you respond.
Prepare for the next time your husband becomes easily annoyed by doing what I call looking behind the arrows. Consider what your husband might be feeling when he becomes annoyed. Since annoyance and anger typically are secondary emotions, perhaps your husband is feeling threatened in some way. Maybe he feels overwhelmed with pressures.
I’m not saying we’re to give people a pass for reacting badly to us. I don’t want you to enable your husband’s poor behavior. But for now, let’s focus on you. You can pause, reflect on what he might be feeling, and show empathy for his situation. You don’t have to become defensive.
As you look “behind the arrows” for what he’s really feeling, chances are you’ll feel more empathy for him. In fact, you may feel compassion; showing that to your husband may elicit a different response from him.
Recently I reacted much like your husband to my wife. Instead of responding “in kind,” she showed compassion for me. “I suspect you’re feeling really tired,” she said. “Why don’t we talk about this tomorrow when we’re both feeling fresh?” I really appreciated her compassion and quickly settled down. Can you imagine doing the same?
Let’s consider some other ways of defusing anger and defensiveness.
Don’t react with anger. While this may be obvious, it is important that you not respond “in kind.” Two angry, defensive people creates an explosive situation. It takes two to fight!
Empathize with your mate. Why is he so upset? Ask gentle questions to see if he will calmly tell you what is bothering him. Listen carefully and respond to his situation empathically. This is likely to settle him down.
Don’t take things personally. While you don’t like his reactions, this is not all about you. Try not to take his reactions personally. Remind yourself that his reactions are his reactions. This will provide at least a thin layer of protection from them.
Seek to understand what’s bothering him. When you ask questions and give him your full attention, you show your husband kindness and respect; everyone appreciates this kind of treatment.
Look for an opportunity to help him. Your husband is in distress. He needs help and you can give it to him. As you listen, ask questions, and not take anything personally, you’ll be seen as an ally, not an adversary.
Gently remind him that he needs to talk to you with respect. Yes, there are times when we need to step back from an angry, defensive person. We must set healthy boundaries as we “teach people how to treat us.” When you do so, you send your spouse the strong message that you expect to be talked to with respect. Repeat as necessary.
In summary, Scripture is clear about removing ourselves from angry people. “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered” (Proverbs 22: 24). Use discretion about when to step away from your husband; connect with him when he treats you respectfully.