How to Sidestep Defensiveness

There is nothing quite like defensiveness to take a conflict from a minor disagreement to a full blown argument.  Have you ever experienced something like the following scenario You are feeling frustrated with your partner because they didn’t let you know they were running late coming home from work. When they walk in the door an hour later than expected, you are angry and say “Why couldn’t you have called me?!?  You’re so inconsiderate!” Your partner, feeling attacked, responds with a counter attack and says “You are one to talk. Last week you couldn’t be bothered to text me when you were going to be late.”  And that’s where the fight started, as the saying goes!  Then, what started as a single disagreement has escalated to include raised voices, other incidents and hurtful words. 

What, exactly, is defensiveness?  It’s perceiving your partner as attacking or criticizing then responding in a way that verbally attacks or demeans them back.  The defensive response doesn’t address the statement the speaker is trying to make (albeit, imperfect).  Defensiveness can be so harmful to relationships because it almost always escalates the interaction.  Plus, the original subject doesn’t stand a chance of being discussed effectively. If you look at the above scenario, it makes sense how the damage can be done. Consider this-you are already feeling some kind of difficult emotion towards your partner. When you communicate this emotion and get met with a counter attack, it is likely to leave you feeling unheard, invalidated, and hurtThis can easily turn into a vicious cycle of attack/defend because as soon as we hear, “you’re so…” the need to defend ourselves is strong. 

  • As the speaker, communicate a complaint not a criticism: How you start a conversation largely determines how it will end. People naturally want to defend themselves when they feel attacked; it is human nature. So, it can be really helpful to think about how you can communicate what you’re feeling to help your partner not feel attacked. Focus on the behavior and not your partner as a whole.  Consider how differently the communication above could have gone if the speaker had said “I was really worried when you were running late. Next time can you please call or text to let me know? 
  • As the listener, ask yourself “What is the story I am telling myself?” Often, how we interpret what we are hearing informs how we react. Many times, we may even “hear” it in a very different way than it was intended.  Investigate how your thoughts may be escalating your responseThen, you can run these thoughts by your partner, which provides an excellent opportunity for more effective communication by allowing the speaker to clarify exactly how they meant their message. For example, in the above scenario, consider the defensiveness that would arise if the listener interprets the speaker’s message as “my partner doesn’t trust me or is questioning if I was really late from work.”  
  • As the listener, tune into how you are feeling. If you can recognize you are feeling defensive, you can let the speaker know and ask them to restate their complaint. Think about how a conversation could easily shift with this statement: “I am starting to feel defensive; can you please say that in a different way.”  

If you and your partner are finding defensiveness keeps cropping up in your communication, please give us a call at 908-246-3074, or contact us at to schedule an appointment. Can’t get your partner to come with you? Schedule an individual appointment. Good things can happen in a relationship even when only one person is in therapy. Remember: we help couples AND individuals to improve their relationships.  

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