Hopefully, your clients are familiar with the notion that when we act on our self-protective impulses, we invariably behave in ways that are damaging to our relationship. That’s why in the DM we call these “ineffective self-protective behaviours”. We all have them and will do them reflexively when feeling threatened in some way.
When I have made a mistake, got something wrong, or behaved in ways that are hurtful to my partner, my self-protective impulses often prompt me to talk about why I behaved that way. Usually, this involves an attempt to minimise my responsibility. The most common way to do this is to try and excuse and justify my behaviour. For example, “I only shouted at you because you were being so rude”.
That focus on what my partner did to “cause” my behaviour usually comes because I struggle to feel OK about myself, so recognising and accepting that I have got it wrong can feel devastating; like I am confirming what a bad person I am. For example, I unconsciously fear that when I am aggressive I am like my domineering father.
In those moments when I am making excuses for myself, I am more in relationship with my insecurities than I am with my partner. My distress at the triggering of my fears about myself makes it hard for me to recognise, let alone accept and respond to the impact of my behaviour on them. My partner is likely to feel twice wounded if I come across as justifying the behaviour that hurt them
If being a good partner is my top priority, then I need to aim to repair the “rupture” to the relationship caused by my ineffective self-protective behaviours asap. Remember that John Gottman’s research showed us it’s the speed and effectiveness of relationship repair that separates the happy from the unhappy couples. Explanation is often part of repair, but the timing of it matters. This is what our clients so often get wrong!
When I accept that I have done something unhelpful or hurtful then I will first acknowledge that without justification. I will take responsibilty for my behaviour and focus first on repairing my connection with you; things like apologising and doing what I can to make things right. “Sorry, I came on way too strong there. I didn’t need to shout like that. That must have been scary for you”.
Somewhere in that process it is likely to be useful for me to be able to understand why I acted in ways that were contrary to my values and against my intentions to be loving, kind, supportive etc to my partner. My focus will be on myself, my insecurities, my upbringing and training around intimacy, and my present circumstances.
Working out what was going on inside me, why I interpreted my partner’s behaviour the way I did, is important for me to make effective plans for acting differently next time something like this happens. “What I think happened for me was…”
When clients offer this kind of in-depth, self-exploratory explanation of why they did something unhelpful it is going to make any assurances they offer about not doing it again much more believable for their partner. It also is an example of the sort of intimate, vulnerable communication that builds trust and respect.
So next time you are trying to help a couple resolve a conflict where one person was trying to explain why they behaved the way they did, make sure they focus on taking responsibility and repairing the relationship before they worry about “why”? Make sure they are not looking for shame-driven excuses but, instead, are able to find a deep and self-aware explanation that will help them change their behaviour and build their partner’s trust and respect.
Once they can do that, talking about the reasons behind their behaviour becomes an explanation, not a justification. It becomes an opportunity for intimate reflection and connection that helps both of them understand what makes one person “tick”. It’s also a chance for both of them to show some compassion for what drives that person to be self-protective. Processing ruptures this way is a vital plank in building a relationship that both people will want to be in.