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What To Do When Your Partner Gets Defensive

Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Jan 30, 2024

In any relationship, communication is key. However, when one partner often reacts defensively, it can create a barrier that hinders a healthy relationship. Defensiveness is a common issue many couples face, leading to misunderstandings, resentment, and emotional distance. This article explores the intricacies of defensive behavior—identifying its root causes, exploring its impact on relationships, and offering practical strategies for dealing with a defensive partner and changing your own defensive responses. By understanding why defensiveness occurs and how to address it effectively, couples can work towards building a more open, understanding, and connected relationship.

What is defensiveness or defensive behavior?

Defensive behavior is a maladaptive communication tactic usually employed by people who feel attacked or criticized. When a person is defensive, they are unable or unwilling to hear feedback. Instead of hearing the information that someone is trying to communicate with them, they immediately deflect and put blame back on the other person without acknowledging what they have said.

For example, a husband shares with his wife that he is sad that she did not accompany him to his company Christmas party when his co-worker’s partners did attend the event. Instead of receiving feedback that her husband is sad about something she has or has not done or inquiring more about why this is a concern, she immediately deflects and fires back.

While her concern may be just as valid as his, this defensive response immediately shuts down communication. The husband’s concern is left unacknowledged or resolved, which makes it unlikely he will be willing to respond to his wife’s worries about household chores. Neither of their needs have been met. They are both left feeling upset, resentful, and many other possible negative emotions.

Why do people become defensive?

There are many reasons why someone may become defensive. The underlying cause is usually rooted in shame or a fear of being wrong. They may also feel that the feedback they are being given is inaccurate or unjust and want to prove the speaker wrong in their emotions or beliefs. They become defensive to prove the other person wrong or to let them know that they are the ones being hurt or harmed. They do this because they’re experiencing low self-esteem and fear of being perceived negatively. However, becoming defensive will only create the feared result of being misunderstood or unfairly judged.

 

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10 tips on how to handle a defensive partner

Handling a defensive partner requires patience, understanding, and effective communication strategies. One strategy worth mentioning is the five love languages, which allow us to understand our partners on their terms and communicate in a way that is uniquely meaningful to them. Incorporating these strategies can lead to healthier communication patterns and a more understanding and supportive relationship dynamic. Remember, the goal is not to “win” but to understand and grow together.

1. Understand the root causes

Begin by understanding your partner’s feelings and why they’re acting defensively. Defense mechanisms often stem from past traumas, insecurities, or fear of criticism. Recognizing these underlying reasons can help you to remain calm and deploy empathy and patience with your partner.

2. Practice active listening

Active listening is when your partner is speaking. Focus on truly hearing and understanding their perspective. Avoid interrupting, and show that you’re engaged by nodding or using affirmations like “I see” or “I understand.” This can help lower their defenses and feel valued.

3. Use “I” statements

Communicate your feelings and needs without placing blame. Instead of saying, “You always act defensively,” try, “I feel hurt when it seems like my concerns are not being heard.” Focus on “I” rather than “You” reduces the likelihood of triggering a defensive response.

4. Pick the right time

Timing can significantly impact how your message is received. Avoid bringing up sensitive topics during stressful times. Instead, choose a calm, relaxed moment to discuss your concerns, ensuring you are more open to dialogue.

5. Express empathy and understanding

Showing empathy towards their feelings and viewpoints can help your partner feel heard. Acknowledging their emotions can make them feel supported and understood, which might reduce their need to be defensive.

6. Establish a safe environment

Create an environment where both of you feel safe to express your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Reassure your partner that your relationship is a safe space for open communication and constructive conversation.

7. Seek a compromise

Find a middle ground where both of you can agree. Compromise shows that you value the relationship over being right, which can encourage your partner to lower their defenses. Understanding and balancing each other’s attachment styles is extremely helpful in finding productive compromises.

8. Encourage professional help

If defensiveness is deeply rooted or affects your relationship significantly, suggest seeking help from a therapist. Professional guidance can provide tools and strategies to improve communication and better understand each other’s perspectives.

9. Practice patience and compassion

Change takes time. Be patient and compassionate with your partner as they work on their defensiveness. Celebrate small improvements and continue to support each other’s growth.

10. Self-reflection

Finally, reflect on your own behavior. Sometimes, we may unintentionally contribute to our partner’s defensiveness through our actions or words, and being open to self-improvement can positively influence your partner and your relationship.

How to change your defensive response and be more open instead

Defensiveness is a natural reaction to feeling threatened or criticized, but it often serves as a barrier to genuine connection and understanding in relationships. Changing your defensive response to one of openness is challenging yet rewarding. It involves developing self-awareness, managing emotions, and actively engaging in constructive communication. You can create deeper connections and enhance your personal growth by learning to respond to feedback and perceive criticism with curiosity rather than defensiveness. Here’s how to start changing your defensive responses and become more open to the perspectives of others:

1. Recognize your fear

It is essential to recognize that if you are being defensive, you are in a state of fear. Shutting down communication by deflecting or blaming indicates that there is a fear that is preventing you from hearing feedback from other people. Notice when you are feeling afraid, feeling frustrated, or going into a fight or flight response. It is impossible to have a logical conversation when experiencing intense fear.

2. Request to resume the conversation later

When you notice you are becoming defensive, request to resume the conversation when you have had time to calm down and gather your thoughts instead of continuing the conversation.

3. Focus on connecting

While it might be difficult to receive negative or critical feedback, it is important to recognize that to connect with another, we need to know them, and part of that is understanding their thoughts and feelings. Shutting down communication whenever you feel uncomfortable with what someone is saying will deny you the opportunity to connect with or know them meaningfully.

What to do instead of getting defensive

A more effective strategy is learning to validate what someone has said without defensiveness, even when you disagree or feel that their perception is inaccurate. This approach works for two reasons.

1. Change your instinct of a negative spin

Stop immediately coming up with a counterdefense in your mind. You’ll be better equipped to listen to and process the presented information without putting your own negative spin on the speaker’s intent. Defensiveness is often a response to a narrative we have created in our minds about how another person will respond or what they might say without even listening to them. Try being curious about their experience. You might learn something from these constructive conversations that could even surprise you.

2. The other person will be more open to hearing your perspective

Valuing another person’s experience fosters effective communication because it allows the person giving you feedback to create space to hear you more easily. They will feel heard and understood. It is a waste of time to tell someone they should not think or feel the way they do because the truth is, that is, their experience. Arguing with that does not change anything for them. When someone is upset and told to “calm down,” they rarely do because you are not addressing why they do not feel calm in the first place. Therefore, nothing changes for them.

Questions to ask yourself when you are feeling defensive

When we react defensively, it’s often a sign that there’s more beneath the surface of our immediate feelings. Taking a moment to introspect and ask fundamental questions can illuminate the underlying causes of our defensiveness, build self-awareness, and promote healthier communication. Exploring this information on a deeper level, either alone or with the help of a couples therapist, can help you make sense of what your responses are rooted in and work to change them. If you see that defensiveness negatively impacts your relationships, know that it is possible to rewire your brain by becoming more conscious and aware. Here are some crucial questions to consider:

1. What am I afraid might happen?

This question gets to the heart of your fears and insecurities. Defensiveness can be a preemptive strike to protect against potential hurt or loss. Are you afraid of being seen as inadequate? Are you worried that admitting a mistake might lead to rejection or diminish your value in the eyes of others? Understanding what you’re trying to protect through defensiveness can be the first step toward addressing those fears more constructively.

2. What emotions do I experience when someone is upset or affected by my behavior?

Identifying your emotional responses can help you understand why you become overly defensive. Do you feel guilty, ashamed, or perhaps unjustly accused? Sometimes, defensiveness is a way to deflect these painful feelings. Recognizing the emotions at play allows you to address the root cause of your defensiveness rather than merely the symptoms.

3. Does this remind me of something from my past?

Our defensive reactions are often not just about the present situation but are also influenced by our past experiences. A critical comment from a partner might evoke hurt feelings related to past criticisms from a parent, triggering a defensive stance. Uncovering these historical connections can help you respond to the current situation based on its own merits rather than past hurt.

4. Do specific topics or behaviors trigger a defensive response within me? Why?

Identifying triggers can provide insights into your vulnerabilities. If specific topics like finances, work, or personal habits consistently provoke a defensive reaction, it might indicate areas where you feel insecure or judged. Understanding why these topics affect you deeply can lead to meaningful conversations about insecurities and support needs with your partner.

Therapy Can Help You and Your Partner Embrace Vulnerability and Create Understanding

Understanding and addressing defensiveness within a relationship is a journey toward more profound empathy and connection. It requires a willingness to look inward, acknowledge vulnerabilities, and embrace the discomfort of growth. Whether you’re navigating your partner’s defensiveness or your own, the key is patience, communication, and a commitment to understanding each other’s perspectives.

If you and your partner are struggling with defensive behavior, consider working with a licensed therapist to overcome the issue. Many offer an initial free consultation. By creating an environment of safety and openness, couples can overcome the barriers defensiveness creates, paving the way for a stronger, more resilient relationship. Remember, the goal isn’t to eliminate vulnerability but to create a space where both partners feel seen, heard, and valued.

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