Breaking the Cycle of Defensive Behavior in Your Relationship
How to Dismantle the Walls of Defense and Connect in Healthy Ways
By Corinne Farago
Why Do People Become Defensive in Relationships?
Every one of Dr. John Gottman’s, 4 Horsemen, (Contempt, Stonewalling, Criticizing, Defensiveness) is a maladaptive strategy to protect us from harm. I’m sure you can trace your protective strategies back through the ages, even to the playground, where you were first introduced to these deadly relationship horsemen so many years ago.
“No, I’m not, you are!” “I didn’t do it, he did!” “I didn’t want to be your friend anyway!”
We learned very young how to deflect, defend, and deny in order to save us from perceived danger. It all made sense at the time, but now as adults in relationships, that same defensiveness shuts down constructive communication with a defended word, or even just a look.
As adults in relationships our defensiveness is just as transparent as it was in our younger years. Our vocabulary may have grown, but the strategy is still pretty simple. Deflect and defend from attack.
“I’m not defensive, I’m just explaining myself.” “Why are you attacking me? I’m not the one who started this.” “I don’t need to change. You’re the one who needs to change.” “I’m sorry, but it’s not entirely my fault. You have to take some responsibility too.”
These statements are defensive because they deflect responsibility, blame the other person, deny wrongdoing, or refuse to listen or engage in a constructive dialogue. Instead of acknowledging the other person’s perspective and seeking to find common ground, defensive statements can escalate conflict and undermine emotional connection.
Strategies for Overcoming Defensiveness in Relationships
Fear of vulnerability is often at the root of defensiveness. Here are a few possible factors that may contribute to that fear:
- Low self-esteem: People with low self-esteem may be more defensive because they are sensitive to criticism and may feel threatened by it. They may fear that criticism or feedback will confirm their negative self-image, leading them to become defensive and protective of their self-esteem.
- Insecurity: People who feel insecure in their relationships may be more defensive because they fear rejection or abandonment. They may perceive criticism or feedback as a threat to their connection with their partner, leading them to become defensive and protective of their relationship.
- Trauma: People who have experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect may be more defensive because they have learned to protect themselves from harm. They may perceive criticism or feedback as a threat to their safety, leading them to become defensive and protective of themselves.
- Communication style: Some people may have a communication style that is naturally more defensive, perhaps because they have learned to be assertive or to protect themselves from conflict or criticism.
- Cultural factors: Cultural norms and values can also influence defensiveness. In some cultures, being defensive may be seen as a sign of strength or assertiveness, while in others, it may be seen as a weakness or a lack of humility.
There are many reasons that contribute to someone choosing defensiveness as their primary strategy, and they all feel equally bad.
Like all 4 Horsemen, defensiveness has a hardness to it. Just like the armor we imagine the horsemen wearing on their bodies, defensiveness looks and feels like a hardened shell of anger and protection.
The way through that hardness is to ask ourselves, what am I protecting? What’s the underlying fear behind the defense?
We can always choose to put our armor down and acknowledge that defensiveness is not going to make us any safer. In a relationship, safety only comes with connection, and connection only comes with vulnerability.
Dealing with the Effects of Defensiveness on a Relationship
Here are some suggestions for the next time you find yourself armored up for defensive battle.
- Be curious: Curiosity is the opposite of defense. Rather than becoming defensive, try to approach your partner’s concerns with curiosity. Ask questions and seek to understand their perspective. Try being more responsive to what your partner is saying, rather than reactive.
- Cultivate empathy: Even for a just a few seconds step into your frontal lobe, your brain’s seat of empathy. Empathy can help partners to understand each other’s perspectives and connect on a deeper level. By putting yourself in your partner’s shoes, you can create a more supportive and understanding environment.
- Take responsibility: Even if you don’t agree with your partner’s perspective, taking responsibility for your part in the situation or misunderstanding can defuse your defensiveness and help your partner feel heard.
Defensiveness can have damaging effects on a relationship, including escalating conflict, communication breakdown, emotional distance, and the development of negative relationship patterns.
It is important for couples to recognize the signs of defensiveness and work together to address it in a constructive and positive way. If you or your partner uses defensiveness as their chosen armor, seek out some relationship coaching to break the unhealthy patterns that are keeping you from living an undefended life.
Don’t let defensiveness get in the way of creating a deep and meaningful connection! Schedule a Discovery Call with me today and learn how to break the cycle of defensive behavior in your relationship.
Stay well and love deeply,
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Breaking the Cycle of Defensive Behavior in Your Relationship
We learned very young how to deflect, defend, and deny in order to save us from perceived danger. It all made sense at the time, but now as adults in relationships, that same defensiveness shuts down constructive communication with a defended word, or even just a look. As adults in relationships our defensiveness is just as transparent as our younger selves. Our vocabulary may have grown but the strategy is still pretty simple. Deflect and defend from attack.
How to Identify and Avoid Criticism in Relationships
One of the fundamental requirements of building intimacy in a relationship is safety. We want the feeling that our partner has our back, understands and supports us, and wants the best for us. When a couple allows criticism to seep into their communication, they have become domesticated adversaries. They are either bracing themselves for the next painful exchange, or they’re healing from yesterday’s wounds.