If you’re like most human beings having a relationship with another human being, you could benefit from learning how to deal with a defensive partner. So many of my couples counseling and relationship coaching clients ask me this question — they want to have productive conversations that leave them both feeling heard and understood… but sometimes one partner is too busy defending themselves to really listen.
Of course, we all get a little defensive from time to time, but defensiveness can be much harder to identify when it’s coming from inside of you. When you’re feeling defensive, it feels like you’re just explaining your perspective or trying to de-escalate the conflict. You may simply want some acknowledgment that you are not the only person in this relationship who makes mistakes. When you’re defending yourself, you may say something that makes your partner feel defensive, and then they may launch a counterattack, which you will have to defend against… and now you’re having a horrible fight, despite your best intentions.
Many couples get stuck in a draining cycle of criticism and defensiveness. They want to be able to communicate about problems in their relationships without all of the angst and escalation, but they don’t know where they’re going wrong. When you’re caught in this cycle, it can be hard to see your own role and where you have opportunities to do something different that leads to positive change.
This article is going to help you understand:
- Why your partner (or friend, family member, or coworker) gets so defensive
- How you can communicate in a way that allows other people to hear you
- How you can remain open to feedback without feeling criticized or blamed.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
What Is Defensiveness?
Defensiveness is both a feeling and a set of behaviors that happen when we feel like we’re being attacked, usually because of criticism or perceived criticism. Just as you would deflect the blows if someone started hitting your body, when you feel like someone is attacking you emotionally or psychologically, you will defend yourself, almost without thinking about it.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s healthy and normal to defend yourself when you are genuinely being attacked by someone whose intentions are to harm you, or when you’re being unjustly accused of something you didn’t do. But sometimes we get defensive when the other person is trying to solve a problem, or trying to give us good information about how our actions are affecting them. This is when defensiveness becomes an issue in relationships. We need to be open to feedback in order to have healthy relationships. If you can’t do that, the problems in the relationship will only get worse. You’ll feel like you’re having the same fight over and over, and your loving feelings for each other will gradually be replaced by mistrust and resentment.
Examples of Defensive Behavior
There are a few “defensive maneuvers” that we all use when we feel criticized or attacked:
- Minimizing — Saying it’s not that big a deal, or that your partner shouldn’t be so upset about the problem.
- Denying — Refusing to validate the other person’s feelings or their perspective. Saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re being ridiculous.”
- Making excuses — Giving reasons for how you acted rather than taking responsibility.
- Blame shifting — Saying that the other person is responsible for the problem. Or, bringing up a time in the past when they did something that you didn’t like.
- Stonewalling — Shutting down rather than communicating and refusing to engage with the conflict.
- Placating — Going along with what the other person says to end the conflict, with no intention of following through on any changes. This can also be a passive aggressive maneuver.
These defensive reactions can temporarily protect us from the painful feelings, like sadness, guilt, or shame, that can come up when we feel criticized. Unfortunately, when we engage in these behaviors too often, our relationships suffer and we miss out on opportunities to grow.
When your partner gets defensive, it closes off the path to resolving problems in the relationship in a productive way. Over time, the you may lose hope that you can fix the relationship, and that’s when relationships fail.
Why Am I So Defensive?
There may be a solitary monk perched in a Himalayan monastery who has completely transcended his impulse to get defensive. For everybody else, defensiveness happens. But it’s also true that certain factors can make a person more defensive and less open to feedback.
If you grew up with parents who were critical or rejecting, you may feel insecure in your relationship any time your partner is disappointed or unhappy with you. You may have developed negative core beliefs that tell you you’re likely to be abandoned any time you’re less than perfect, which naturally makes you feel like it’s vital to defend yourself against any implications that you could have made a mistake.
If you struggle with low self-esteem or you need a lot of external validation in order to feel good about yourself, that can also make you very sensitive to criticism. Negative feedback from others will feel much more consequential than it really is if you don’t have a strong foundation of self-love to fall back on.
If you think low self-esteem, trouble validating yourself, or difficult childhood experiences are behind your tendency to get defensive, working with a good therapist can help you feel better about yourself and more relaxed when you’re receiving feedback.
How to Deal with a Defensive Partner
If your partner gets defensive during conflict, it can feel like there’s no way to have a constructive conversation without them shutting down. But there are a number of things you can do to improve your communication and reduce the likelihood that your partner will feel like they need to defend themselves. This allows them to hear you, so that you can work through issues productively.
First, always use a “soft startup,” which is just what it sounds like. Initiate difficult conversations gently and at moments when you’re both in a calm mood. If your partner walks through the door and you immediately fly into them with a list of complaints, odds are they will react defensively.
It’s also important to create an emotionally safe environment for important conversations. To do this, lead with your vulnerable feelings — like sadness, disappointment, or anxiety — rather than anger. Anger is a secondary emotion, which means there are always other feelings underneath it that you could express instead. When you lead with anger, your partner will feel a natural impulse to push away from you (through defensiveness), rather than moving toward you to address your hurt feelings.
If despite your best efforts your partner still gets a little defensive, the conversation is not a lost cause. Remain calm and listen to what they have to say, without responding with a defensive reaction of your own. Validate your partner by acknowledging that their perspective and emotions are real — which you can do without sharing the same feelings or perspective. A validating statement like “I hear you, and I can see that this is making you feel frustrated. I think you might be feeling criticized or blamed,” will help your partner calm down, allowing you space to voice your feelings and perspective.
It can be frustrating when you have to spend time helping your partner work through a thick layer of defensiveness when your goal was to talk about something that was bothering you, but think of dealing with a defensive partner effectively as a long-term investment in the quality of your relationship. As your partner begins to feel that your approach to conflict has shifted, conversations will gradually start to trend in a calmer, more positive direction. Your partner will feel more relaxed and better able to respond to you without getting defensive.
Finally, be aware that some of how you’re experienced by others is not within your control. If the root issue is low self-esteem or bad childhood experiences, your partner is likely to continue feeling at least somewhat defensive in conflict, no matter how perfect your approach is. A good individual therapist or couples counselor can help your partner uncover the underlying factors and address them.
How to Stop Being Defensive
The first step in being less defensive is getting familiar with how you feel during conflict. This sounds easy, but it actually takes a lot of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. When your partner says something that feels like an accusation, it’s natural to become emotionally flooded and reactive without really knowing what you’re reacting to. Take a few breaths and notice how you’re feeling before you respond to your partner.
Next, go into listening mode. Imagine that your role in this conversation is simply to understand your partner’s feelings and perspective as clearly as you can. Give them plenty of time to talk, and use active listening skills to reflect back what you hear. Ask clarifying questions (which is different from using questions to poke holes in their argument). Even if you disagree with what they’re saying, validate how they feel. Be as patient as you can — you will get your turn to share once your partner feels heard and validated.
When it’s your turn, don’t defend yourself against what they said, but start by taking responsibility for the part of the problem that is your responsibility. Let them know you care about this and that you want to find a solution. Then you can share your feelings about the situation. Your partner will be in a much better place to hear you without getting defensive now that they’ve been able to tell you how they feel.
Overcoming Defensiveness, Together
Finding ways to overcome a pattern of criticism and defensiveness together can strengthen your relationship in more ways than one. You’ll be better equipped to resolve problems in a way that is peaceful and productive, and you’ll also get the opportunity to understand each other more deeply and to support each other’s growth. That is what truly makes relationships successful.
If you’re interested in doing this valuable work with a couples counselor or relationship coach on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more advice on helping each other feel seen, heard, and understood, check out our “Communication that Connects” collection of articles and podcasts.
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
How to Deal with a Defensive Partner
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Free, Expert Advice — For You.
Subscribe To The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast
Music in this episode is by The Cramps with their song “Sunglasses After Dark.” Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Let’s Talk: Start With a Free Consultation
If you’re ready to grow, we’re here to help. Connect with us, and let us know your hopes and goals. We’ll follow up with recommendations, and will help you schedule a first, free consultation.