Being defensive blocks connection, compassion, and isolates you from your partner. Instead of focusing on we-ness, a defensive person focuses on me-ness. Defensiveness is one of the most dangerous signs of toxic fighting because it creates never-ending cycles of negativity.
Taylor: You never make love to me anymore. (Criticism)
Sophia: Well, you never take me out on dates. (Defensiveness)
When I see couples like Tyler and Sophia act defensive towards each other, it makes me smile. They have yet to realize they just want more out of each other.
Taylor wants to make more love with Sophia because it makes him feel more connected to her. Sophia wants to get wined and dined like they used to before they had kids. Spending quality time with Tyler made her feel connected to him, and she desired him more as a result.
Defensiveness blocks creativity. It heightens negativity and prevents partners from having access to humor, affection, and the ability to listen and empathize with each other.
When I asked Taylor and Sophia what their partner needed, they both looked at me with a blank stare. Instead of hearing what they needed from each other, they heard personal attacks.
“Thinking based on ‘who deserves what’ blocks compassionate communication.” – Rosenberg
The Defensive Alarm System
You and I have evolved with a defensive response that takes over when we perceive danger. 1
When we feel emotionally flooded, even before we are consciously aware of it, our defenses go up. This adaptation has served humans for millions of years. It increases our heart rate and creates energy to fight or flee. Your brain becomes hypersensitive to any form of threat.
Despite having no predators around to eat you, your alarm can still go off. Your heart rate can escalate up to 168 beats per minute during a conflict conversation with the person you love. It’s impossible to solve problems when you feel like your life is at stake.
As your heart rate rises above your natural rhythm and adrenaline is released, your perception of your relationship turns into “tunnel vision.” You start to see your partner as dangerous and can focus only on becoming safe. Your capacity to listen accurately goes out the window. Communicating when you’re flooded is useless because defensiveness is inevitable.
When you are defensive, it denies your responsibility in the problem. You paint your partner as the guilty one, and instead of your relationship having a problem both of you need to work together on, you tell yourself that you are stuck with a bully who you somehow selected to marry.
9 Ways of Being Defensive
If you are being defensive, even if you feel completely justified, you are worsening your relationship problems. 2
Refusing Responsibility: No matter what your partner complains about, you argue that you have no role in it.
- Tina: “You hurt my feelings when you talked about my work in front of our friends.”
- Shawn: “I didn’t say anything wrong.”
Creating Excuses: Instead of taking ownership, you blame external excuses beyond your control.
- Sarah: “You’re late to our dinner date again… How are you so irresponsible?”
- Chris: “There was a ton of traffic on the highway.”
Arguing with negative mind reading: Your partner may make assumptions about your feelings, behavior or intentions. If it’s negative, you may become defensive.
- Heather: “You’re always so awkward around the Johnson’s.”
- Brenden: “I am not. I’m completely normal.”
Counter-complaining: You reply to your partner’s complaints with a complaint of your own, ignoring what your partner said.
- Joan: “We rarely go out and do things with other people. You’re so anti-social.”
- Steve:”No, it’s just that you never care to let me know when there are things to do.”
Playground fighting: Remember the old playground song “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say to me bounces off me and sticks to you.” This childish pattern not only defends you from an attack but also blames your partner.
- Tristian: “You never ask me about my work projects.”
- Brittany: “Well, you never ask me about my work projects.”
Yes-Butting: This is a statement that begins with an agreement but ends up disagreeing.
- Jake: “We should have our end-of-the-day conversation while having a glass of wine after dinner.”
- Karin: “Yes, we could try that but I really don’t think it’d work.”
The Broken Record Syndrome: Instead of seeking to understand your partner’s perspective, you repeat your position again and again. You do this because you think you are right and believe that understanding your partner’s view is pointless.
- Alyssa: It’s great that you’re going to the gym during the week, but I need more help on the weekends.”
- Mason: “Well, the gym is my escape, and the weekends allow me the most time to work out.”
- Alyssa: “Not when we have three little boys that need our help.”
- Mason: “Well, if I want to stay fit, I need to go to the gym every day.”
- Alyssa: “You don’t have to go every day. That’s too much when you have a family.”
- Mason: “I have to go. Otherwise, I won’t hit my goals.”
Both Alyssa and Mason are restating their perspective without seeking to understand why their partner is saying what they are saying. They do this hoping that if they express their opinion enough, eventually their partner will see the wisdom of their position and surrender.
Whining: This is clear in the tone of voice being used. Typically, a sentence ends in a high-pitched tone and stresses a single syllable near the end of the sentence. The underlying message is “Stop picking on me. I’m innocent.”
- Fake smile (corners of the mouth are raised but the eyes stay the same)
- Shifting from side to side like a boxer trying to avoid a punch (just not as fast)
- Playing with the neck, as if wearing a necklace
Defensiveness doesn’t mean you are a bad person who is intentionally sabotaging your relationship. The goal of writing this is to help you recognize the unhealthy styles of fighting so you can stop them, repair, and actually get your needs met.
You Are Response-able for your Defensiveness
How your partner talks to you impacts how you feel, but it does not determine how you respond. When you choose to respond defensively, you perpetuate the problems in your relationship.
The first strategy is to stop seeing your partner as the enemy. You may be able to call out your partner being defensive, but defensiveness is always a two-way street. It’s rare in any relationship for a person to be defensive to everything. This is why taking a hard look at how you express your complaints and express your anger is important.
You either alienate both your partner and yourself, or you express your needs in a way that gives your partner a recipe to a healthy and happy relationship with you.
When you seek to understand and empathize with your partner, even if you’re feeling under attack, you pull the both of you out of negative cycles.
4 DIY Remedies to Defensiveness
Remember the alarm system?
Emotional flooding renders us incapable of avoiding defensiveness. This is why regulating our emotions and staying calm is so important. The masters of relationships in Dr. Gottman’s love lab were able to calm themselves as they listened to their partner’s negative emotions and perspectives.
This isn’t easy.
The Power of Self-Soothing
If you gift yourself with a small pause before reacting to your partner’s perceived attack, you will have a better chance at calming yourself. You can do this by taking deep full lung breaths and focus on relaxing your body.
If you have a hard time doing this while your partner is talking, say the following: “I’m feeling defensive and I want to understand what you have to say. Can you give me a moment to calm myself, so I can hear what you need?”
Focus just on listening and trying to understand your partner’s position. You don’t have to agree with it, but it should make sense to you why they feel the way they do.
If you become too flooded, take up to a twenty-minute break. Dr. Gottman’s research shows that even if you think you feel calm before the 20 minutes, the chances are your heart rate is still 10% above its normal rate. That means you might re-flood if you start too soon. During the break, focus on the positives of your relationship. If you stew in the negative, the break will be pointless.
I also recommend creating a time-out cue that both partners agree to before any conflict arises. This makes it much easier to ask for it, and keeps both partners on the same team, instead of one feeling like it is a form of abandonment.
Take some responsibility
The antidote to defensiveness, according to Dr. Gottman, is simply accepting some responsibility for the problem. Even saying “you’re kind of right,” goes a long way to de-escalating conflict.
Change Your Inner Dialogue
It’s vital that you differentiate the current issue in your relationship from your view of your relationship overall. What you think, even to yourself, significantly impacts how you treat your partner.
Once you focus on your partner’s negative qualities, you forget about all of the traits you admire. You may take the innocent victim stance or feel righteous indignation. Either of those set a trap for yourself. As you swim in the sea of your negative thoughts, you will emotionally flood.
“He pisses me off.”
“I deserve better.”
“I never get appreciation for all that I do.”
When you are flooded, you cannot see your relationship or the problem clearly. In fact, you’ll miss 50% of the goodness that’s there. 3.
By stopping these negative thoughts in their tracks, you can recognize that they are not entirely true and that you can change them to a more realistic picture of your relationship.
Make an intentional effort to replace these negative thoughts with compassion, soothing, and empathizing ones.
“Don’t take this personally. You’re just overwhelmed right now. Calm down. Things will be okay.”
“This really isn’t about me. It’s about building a better relationship together.”
“I am hurt and I love my partner. I need to calm down so we can figure this out together.”
The most productive way to stop defensive communication is to choose to have a positive mindset of your partner. It’s vital you reintroduce admiration in your relationship to achieve this.
Like you, my mind is constantly narrating what is happening. It’s making assumptions about my partner and what she means when she tells me things that bothered her. Communication sucks, and even though most of us can speak well, what one partner means and what another partner hears can be entirely different.
Sometimes when I’m listening to my partner and I notice myself feeling defensive, I’ll say to myself, “What if I’m misunderstanding her? Could what I think she is saying not be what she is actually trying to say?”
By doing this, I give myself permission to get curious about my partner’s inner world. I ask for more details about what she is feeling. I ask open-ended questions that paint a clearer picture of her perspective. And then I try to reflect and empathize with her.
Then I finish with the question, “did I get it right?” I’m making sure I am giving her the opportunity to make sure I understand her fully, so I don’t become defensive.
How to Respond to Defensiveness
If your partner responds defensively, avoid responding in the same way. Pause for a moment and search for the longing underneath your partner’s harsh words. I like to think about reverse engineering Dr. Gottman’s healthy compliant model by asking myself the following questions:
- What does my partner feel?
- What is the specific event that influenced this feeling?
- What positive need do they have?
If you’re the speaker, you can also try clarifying your need to your partner. Be gentle and help them understand what you need without attacking them.
When our partners hear criticism, contempt, or defensiveness, they may invest their energy in self-defense and counterattacks. But the more “directly we can connect our feelings to our needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately.” (Quote from Rosenberg)
Preventing defensiveness is hard if your relationship’s emotional bank account is bankrupt. When this happens, partners are overly sensitive to negative messages.
In fact, they may even turn neutral messages into negative ones. 4.
The best way to have effective conflict is to build a strong friendship outside of conflict. When couples create a sense of we-ness in their Story of Us, they become skilled at repairing when things go wrong. They put their partner’s needs on par with their own. And they team up to figure out how to love each other better. Instead of playing the blame game, partners say, “Oh I hurt you. Tell me about it. I don’t want you to feel that way again.”
Practice listening and speaking without being defensive. One of the best ways to do this is to have a weekly State of the Union Meeting. The goal of learning how to ATTUNE to each other is to reduce threat and avoid flooding so understanding, and empathy can occur.
There Are Two Roads and I Took The One Less Traveled
Before you respond to a complaint, criticism, contempt, or even defensiveness, remember you really do have a choice in how you respond. Your next statement is a deciding factor as to whether the conversation will remain healthy by expressing specific complaints, or if it will turn destructive by criticising and being contemptuous.
Transforming Defensiveness into Connection
Below are some of the defensive responses above, reworded to create connection and resolution.
- Tina: “You hurt my feelings when you talked about my work in front of our friends.”
- Shawn: “I didn’t say anything wrong.” (Better response:”Really? Wow. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Please tell me what I said that bothered you.”) Instead of being defensive, Shawn is taking responsibility and becoming curious about his partner’s hurt.
- Sarah: “You’re late to our dinner date again. How are you so irresponsible?”
- Chris: “There was a ton of traffic on the highway.” (Better response: “You’re right. I didn’t leave with enough time to account for traffic delays. I know it feels really lonely to sit at a nice restaurant all alone. What do you need me to say or do so we can repair and have the lovely night I was looking forward to?”) Instead of being snappy, Chris takes responsibility, expresses empathy, and ask Sarah what she needs to repair.
You are response-able for being defensive because you get to choose how you will respond. If you respond with compassion, you’ll improve your relationship. If you respond defensively, you’ll be part of the reason your relationship declines. Which road do you choose?
- Hans Selye calls this the “general alarm response.” – The Stress of Life. ↩
- These defensive responses come from Dr. Gottman’s research.To learn more check out The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, and Why Marriages Succeed or Fail ↩
- Robinson and Price discovered that when a couple was unhappy, the partners missed 50% of the positive bids in the relationship ↩
- Robinson and Price discovered that when a couple was unhappy, the partners viewed even neutral and sometimes positive interactions as negative ↩