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On Saturday morning, my plan was to get up reasonably early and get a bike ride in. I say “reasonably” because I certainly wouldn’t want to misrepresent myself as a morning person. There’s no way I’m hopping out of bed at 6:00 am on Saturday to exercise, as many of my clients so admirably do. I mean that instead of my usual lounging over coffee and the papers, I’ll just grab a bite and go.

You might be wondering why so much thought was going into this. Well, sadly, my husband and step-daughter don’t enjoy cycling like I do. So, it takes a bit of strategizing to figure out how I’m going to do everything I want to in one weekend. I figured I’d be ready to join them when they’re up and around and ready to go. Since they like their sleep even more than I do.

But as it turned out, I ended up doing a couple of chores and my husband came downstairs just as I was heading out.

“You were supposed to be back by now,” he said.

Excuse me? I’m not aware that I’m supposed to be anywhere and any particular time.”

No, I didn’t actually say that. I probably didn’t have to. I’m guessing my raised eyebrows were communicating my thoughts very nicely.

We were at that pivot point where couples so often find themselves.

And we talk about so much in my office. You can say something harsh and start a debate. Or you can reach for a better tool.

One great tool is to explore the desire behind the harsh remark.

Clients of mine will recognize this as “looking behind the fight or flight façade.” Your partner’s natural defensive system throws off hostile reactions because that’s its time-honored way to keep him safe.

If he’s really attacking you or hurting you, then of course you have to stop him. But if he’s just taking the first step down that road, then you might be able to sidestep the defense and talk about the desire.

I looked at John. I mean really looked at him. So often when we’re feeling defensive, we’re really looking in at our own thoughts, aren’t we? That makes it pretty hard to understand what’s going on with our partners.

Then it was clear that he wasn’t trying to be controlling or get me upset. He just wanted me to be home.

So I asked, “Well, when do you want me to be back?”

“Now.” His tone softened.

“You just don’t want me to leave at all, do you?”

“No.” His tone softened some more.

Of course he didn’t want me to leave. He looks forward to our Saturday morning routine, reading, chatting and solving the world’s problems, no need to rush off anywhere. So do I.

I didn’t feel indignant or controlled any more. What I felt was lucky.

And we went on to work out our plans for the rest of the day without any more trouble.

So that’s my tip for today: Look behind your partner’s defensive reactions. It’s just a protective façade. See if you can pick up on what his desire is. The one he can’t express at that moment, or isn’t even aware of. If that fails, ask!

If you can have a conversation about desires instead of defenses, chances are you can resolve your issue. And then move on to something more fun.

By Claire Hatch