Couple representing defensiveness in relationships

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 a conflict. Or, you may simply want some acknowledgment that you are not the only person in this relationship who makes mistakes.

When you’re in the middle of defending yourself, it’s easy to say something that makes your partner feel defensive. And then they may launch a counterattack, which you will have to defend yourself against… and now you’re having a horrible fight, rather than talking through a problem together in a productive way.

Many couples get stuck in a draining cycle of criticism and defensiveness. They want to be able to communicate about issues 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. 

(Psst… If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.) 

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 accused of something you didn’t do. But sometimes we have a defensive reaction when the other person is trying to solve a problem, or trying to information with us about how our actions are affecting them. This is when defensiveness becomes a big issue in relationships. In fact, renowned relationship therapist Dr. John Gottman calls defensiveness one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” because it can be so problematic.

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 tend to 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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 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, 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.

  1. Emotional dysregulation contributes to defensiveness. If feelings tend to come on fast and intense for you, it’s hard to remain calm in the face of criticism.
  2. Childhood relationships. 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 rejected or abandoned any time you’re less than perfect, which naturally makes you feel like it’s vital to defend yourself against any suggestion that you made a mistake.
  3. Low self-esteem or needing a lot of external validation to feel good about yourself 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. Focusing specifically on increasing your emotional intelligence skills can be a game-changer.

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.

  1. 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 by getting defensive.
  2. Focus on emotional safety, especially during important conversations. To do this, try leading with your vulnerable feelings — like sadness, disappointment, or anxiety — rather than anger. 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 respond to your hurt feelings.
  3. Manage your expectations. Your partner may get a little defensive, despite your best efforts. That doesn’t mean the conversation is a lost cause! Just don’t let defensiveness turn into your defensiveness. Give them some space to have their feelings and try not to escalate things in return.

Here’s what you can do if a conversation goes sideways because of your partner’s defensiveness: 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 even if you disagree. A validating statement like “I hear you, and I can see that you feel frustrated. I think you might be feeling criticized or blamed,” has an instant calming effect, allowing you some 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 they begin to feel that your approach to conflict has shifted, conversations will start to trend in a calmer, more positive direction. Over time, your partner will feel safer, 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 root causes of their defensiveness so that they can 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. Take a few breaths and notice how you’re feeling so that you can respond to your partner rather than reacting

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.  

Breaking Through 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.

With love, 

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.

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How to Deal with a Defensive Partner

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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.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you are listening to The Love, Happiness and Success podcast. Have you ever wondered why seemingly small conflicts with your partner can suddenly escalate into big, really nasty fights? If you’re like most couples, one of the usual suspects is a cycle of criticism and defensiveness.

Today, we’re talking about how you can disrupt that cycle, put defensiveness to rest, stop fighting, and start having the kinds of constructive conversations that help your relationship grow.

As I was putting together today’s show for you, I was thinking about, “Okay, what song would capture the energy of somebody just being ready to go there, turn into a fight, not backing down, getting defensive?” Yes, we are currently listening to The Cramps, this is their song, Sunglasses After Dark from their 1980 album, Songs The Lord Taught Us. So much good stuff in here, worth checking out classics for sure. 

Hopefully, can put us all back in that space, right? We have just had a very well-intentioned situation, we’re trying to communicate, seems like it’s going well, and then all of a sudden it has taken a sharp right and we are now in the midst of a fight. There is defensiveness that’s getting escalated and this is kind of what it feels like.

On today’s show, we are going to be talking about this communication pattern, really, and how it plagues so many relationships. I mean, really, I think most relationships are quite vulnerable to this dynamic. But although it can be difficult to solve and get out of this cycle if you don’t understand what’s going on, it can actually be quite easy to diffuse defensiveness and have a very different experience with your partner once you kind of understand what’s happening under the surface.

That’s what we’re going to be talking about today. And you know, just to dive right into this, I have talked about this topic before on previous podcasts and certainly have a ton of informational articles available for you all free on the website, growingself.com, that’s my website.

If you are interested in getting even more of what we’re talking about today, I have a few podcasts in particular that I will be referring to as we’re spending time together today, but you can find all of them. If you go to the blog and podcast section@growingself.com, you’ll find it in the main nav. You’ll want to navigate to the love collection, I have all my stuff organized into love, happiness, and success because that’s what we do.

In the Love Collection, every single podcast I’ll be referring to today, other informational articles and even the relationship quiz that you’re going to hear me talking about in a little bit are all available in the love collection, communication that connects, healthy relationships, relationship repair. We’re going deeply into communication skills and strategies and all of those content collections. I just wanted to let you know where these resources were if you hear things that you’re interested in today and want to continue learning.

But you know, defensiveness is a very common relationship pattern. It is a communication style and even though it is common, it’s normal, we’re all familiar with it. It’s destructive, it feels difficult when it’s happening. Think about the situation we can all relate to, your partner comes to you with something and it’s usually some version of a complaint, right?

Like “Hey, you told me you would empty the dishwasher, do this, not do that.” Or “The dishes are all piled up here again, I asked you to stop.” They’re coming to you in a place where maybe they’re activated about something and maybe rightly so. I mean, we put ourselves in their shoes, which is hard to do when we’re feeling attacked or aggravated, right?

But if we slow down, we can understand, “I did that, it probably makes sense.” But the moment, that is not what we do. In the moment when somebody is coming at us or expressing displeasure or telling us about things that we did wrong or blah, blah, blah, it’s very natural to get a little defensive, right? It’s self-protective.

We might say, ”Fine, yes, I forgot. I’ll do it in a bit. I’ve had a really hard day. Let me tell you about all the things going on with me. Like I have 87 reasons for why I didn’t do that and you know what? This, not the end of the world and I don’t really like the way you’re talking to me about this right now.”

We go on this counterattack, and then the rodeo has officially started, right? It creates this cycle. As soon as we push back in a weird way, then our partner automatically has to start working harder to help us understand and validate what’s going on with them. They might bring up other examples in the same time something like this has happened and then you have more to defend yourself against and so on and so forth.

The next thing that you know it like things are not going well, everybody’s upset, there’s yelling involved and you know, we could make it be about the dishwasher or the dishes or whatever happened or didn’t happen. It’s never about the dishwasher or the dishes.

It’s about how we are communicating, how we’re solving problems together, and our level of comfort and awareness around how is this other person feeling? What are they needing from me right now? How do I manage this situation effectively in the moment? You know, pulling in those emotional intelligence skills because whether or not the dishes happen in a certain way, these are really crucial moments for every relationship. 

Relationships are either hurt when there are toxic kinds of skirmishes that happen. Even the littlest thing they’re like wounds, right? They’re death-by-a-thousand-cuts kind of moments or they are every single one of these opportunities to connect, to understand, to show your partner that you care about them, even if you don’t agree about with what they’re saying, that there is a responsiveness, a validation, a feeling of being heard and understood that will strengthen a relationship and these little micro-moments, we all have those choices. Is this going to damage our connection or is this going to strengthen it? 

With everything that we’re going to be talking about today, I just want you to keep that in the front of your mind, right? Because we have a lot of power in these moments, and truly we have a lot more power than we think we do. But to be able to use that power and architect the kinds of experiences that we’re having in our relationships, we need to understand the dynamics, understand where we have agency, like the things we can do.

I’m really excited to be sharing all of these ideas with you today and I hope that over the course of our time together, you hear things that you can put to use like today in your next interaction with your partner, with your mom, with your friend, with your kid because these ideas work. Anyway, I’m glad we’re here doing this. 

Okay, let’s start talking about this, we’re just going to take it apart. The first thing we’re going to be talking about today is not just what defensiveness is, but really, where it comes from. I want you to understand what’s going on under the hood when defensiveness is active because that’ll give you a lot of empowerment to be able to work with this effectively.

We are also going to be talking about the problem with defensiveness. What happens in relationships when defensiveness is present? I want to talk about this a little bit because again, we all get defensive, we all do. This is a real opportunity for growth, I think for every single one of us.

To understand the impact and how we are showing up in these moments, I think helps us all be able to take more personal responsibility, right? For keeping our side of the street clean when this comes up, which it does, which it will. We’re also going to be talking about the systemic relationship between defensiveness and criticism, which is huge.

These two are buddies, they have a love-hate relationship, they usually hang out together, but defensiveness and criticism are sort of two halves of the same whole. We’ll be discussing that and then we are also going to be talking about what to do differently. When you have those defensive feelings coming up, I want to leave you with a couple things that you can do instead.

Also though, a couple of communication strategies or really like relationship skills that you can use to diffuse defensiveness and reduce the likelihood that somebody is going to react to you in a defensive way. There’s a lot here, it’s a big topic. It’s an important topic, but again, I hope it’s helpful.

Diving in, first of all, let’s talk about what defensiveness is. What do we mean by that term, and how does it show up in communication? I mean, okay, so our clue is in the title, defensiveness. You know, we can think about this as being a negative thing, right? We may have ideas or thoughts or feelings about people who are being defensive. Well, as long as it’s not us because we have reasons for defending ourselves, but when other people are being defensive, you know, we can view that unfavorably and defensiveness protection. I am defending myself from you. It is a defense mechanism.

In a lot of cases, it’s appropriate and healthy. If you feel attacked, if you feel victimized, if you feel unjustly accused of something or that somebody is not treating you fairly, of course, you will become reflexively defensive in efforts to protect yourself from what seems, at the moment, like a threat. 

It does feel threatening when somebody does that, especially somebody you care about, you know, you probably want them to be happy. You want them to like you, you want them to feel good about you. When they don’t, it feels threatening. Just like you would try to deflect the blows if somebody was hitting your body, when you feel psychologically attacked, you’ll almost automatically defend yourself. And there are a lot of underlying reasons for that. 

You know, when I have the opportunity to unpack this experience with clients and couples counseling or relationship coaching, for that matter, the things that feel threatening are “I am being criticized, I am being hurt. You know, I am feeling unjustly persecuted. I feel like maybe my partner has unreasonable expectations of me. This is hurting my feelings in some way. Even, you know, maybe I tried hard to do something that my partner didn’t recognize or notice, and instead of noticing what I did do, here’s a face full of what I didn’t do right and that makes me feel bad.”

It makes me feel less than. It can bring up feelings of shame, guilt, fear even. I mean like there’s a lot that happens inside of us when we feel like we have displeased somebody that is important to us. And again, evolutionarily, that makes a lot of sense. We have many old, ancient things in very old, deep, dark parts of our brains.

Like our old emotional limbic system is very sensitive to how other people are feeling about us, and particularly, emotional states of others, if somebody else is angry or frustrated with us like that activates us on a level that is not conscious. That’s something that can be hard with some of these automatic reactions is because even though your thinking brain may be saying to you, “I remember that podcast that you heard about, you know, defensiveness and what to do instead.”

That little neocortex that’s like telling you helpful things is like just the thinnest of covers on this very powerful emotional mind that flares into activation. Anytime we’re experiencing a threat and there’s not much you can do to control that, it is what we do. It’s part of the human experience. With effort, skill, knowledge you can slow that down and learn how to handle it differently. You know, we don’t have to act on everything that we feel. But you will have those feelings, particularly if you are interpreting your partner’s actions towards you as hostile or aggressive. 

When this defensive instinct comes up, then it can take a few different forms. We are flooded now with defensive feeling emotions, and we only have a few options here. We can counterattack, you know, turning the blame on the other person. “Well, I only forgot about the trash day because I was busy cleaning up the mess that you left in the you know, whatever.” 

We counterattack or righteous indignation is always a fun one. “How dare you attack me about this? Do you know how much I do for you?” Right? Or we can also, right, remember, so we have fight, flight, or freeze, our common reactions when we are feeling activated on a physiological level. Fighting is the counterattack: “let me tell you what really happened, let me tell you why this is your fault.”

But also that like flight can be very much part of defensiveness. It can be efforts to kind of move away from the conflict, if not literally with your feet. It can be moving away emotionally and psychologically. Denying somebody else’s experience, invalidating it, minimizing what your partner is saying.

“That’s not really what happened. It wasn’t that big of a deal, really.” They’re defensive maneuvers. They are really, in some ways efforts to de-escalate this. “This isn’t that big of a deal, you’re blowing this out of proportion, X, Y, Z,” you know, which of course is unhelpful and which does escalate the situation.

But in the moment it’s like trying to put the lid back on the jar of whatever that’s exploding. And it can also look like making excuses for things, can be another way of trying to escape or repair the situation very quickly. Defensiveness can take a few more forms as well, it can turn into like, I think in its more extreme form, something called stonewalling can happen, which is a fancy way of saying somebody moves into this position where they’re like, “I’m not going to talk to you about this, you’re being ridiculous and unreasonable and therefore I am taking myself away physically or emotionally.

I don’t want to talk about this, this is dumb. You know, you’re wrong whatever,” can all be parts of defensive posturing. Then I think some of the hardest defensive maneuvering, which we have talked about on other podcasts, is related to passive-aggressive efforts to make conflict stop ASAP by any means necessary.

It means, you know, if a partner is upset like, “Man, I can’t believe you did that.” You know, defensiveness can  also look like, “Oh right, you’re whatever you say, yep, totally do that differently next time, thanks for letting me know, noted, done. okay. fixed, fixed problem solved.” 

Going into this sort of frantic problem-solving, fixing without really engaging on an emotional level, without helping a partner feel heard or understood, it is a reflexive safety maneuver. “I need to tell this aggressive, hostile person whatever they need to hear, whether or not I have any intention of following through with this, because this is not emotionally safe for me right now and I need to make this go away because I’m feeling really scared.”

None of that is conscious by the way, these are reflexive very old ways of being that are automatic a lot of times and still unhelpful right? Then one more very common source of defensiveness that I think we can all totally relate, to every single one of us does this, is related to the bias, attribution bias. And attribution bias is a fancy psychological term that means that we prioritize our own lived experience over those of others.

It doesn’t mean that you’re a mean or bad person if you do that, because we all do it. But how it relates to defensiveness is that, so if you or I do something that somebody else finds displeasing, we did that thing for a reason, that made sense to us at the time. You know, “I didn’t do X, Y, Z because I was super rushed, because I had like 19 other things,” or “I totally forgot to call because of these many good and justifiable reasons,” right? You know what, air quote, defensiveness can also be really our, in some ways, misguided efforts to help somebody understand why we did not intend to do anything harmful.

There were reasons for why we did what they did that had nothing to do with our intentions of being mean or hurtful towards them. It’s like in the most positive and noble way, we’re trying to let somebody into our inner experience, right? But to the person that we are now defending 

ourselves against what it looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like is me saying, “this is why you don’t have the right to feel the way you do.

This is why your understanding of what happened is incorrect and I think that you should believe my interpretation of events over yours. This is why you really don’t have the right to be angry with me and why you need to calm down,” all of which is incredibly invalidating and unhelpful to the person who has been trying to talk to you about how they feel.

But again, we can all relate to it because we have a lot of insight into our own experience and others don’t. In converse, it is very common that when we do things that are annoying, unhelpful, unkind, whatever, perceived badly by others, they’re easy to justify because we have all these reasons why we did what we did.

But if other people behave that way towards us, we do not extend the same grace and curiosity. You know, we attribute the reason why they did what they did to malevolent intentions, poor character, all these bad things about them versus acknowledging the fact that they probably had reasons for doing what they did that made sense to them at the time too.

We forget to be curious in those moments, we’re going to be talking more about where criticism comes from in another section of this podcast, so stay tuned. But anyway, lots of reasons for defensiveness, it can look like many things and it can be based on a lot of different stuff.  I hope that in this conversation you had at least some moments of recognition when you were able to reflect on your own process and what defensiveness looks like in you when it shows up.

Before we move on though, I think it’s very important for us to be talking about why this is a problem, because in the moment when we are being defensive, does not feel like a problem. It feels like an absolutely appropriate response to whatever we’re experiencing, the attack, the threat, the criticism, the injustice of what somebody’s throwing our way. We’re like, “nope, thank you. Here’s what’s happening instead.”

But the issue here is that while it is understandable to go into defensiveness to want to protect ourselves. When we do that, it will always escalate a conflict. Unless you happen to be engaged or in an interaction with the equivalent of a ninth-degree black belt, when it comes to emotional intelligence skills, they know how to manage you, they can make it better. We’re going to be talking about that.

But with normal civilians, when you are defensive, it will create an escalation in the person who was trying to talk to you about how they felt. The reason for that is that they tried to communicate, they’re getting pushback, they’re getting messages that whatever they’re thinking or feeling or needing was not the truth. You have the truth and now you’re going to tell it to them and it makes them feel invalidated, feels like they can’t get through to you. They will become more heated, more passionate, more aggressive even, and trying to be heard.

They will say, “No, really. This is why I feel the way that I do and these are all the reasons and exhibit A” Or maybe just start yelling which will of course, then provoke more defensiveness and maybe even some of those stonewalling behaviors. The other thing that happens in these moments is that when we allow defensiveness to drive the bus.

We’re really missing a huge opportunity to be accomplishing a couple very important things. The first being is just the opportunity to take in feedback that could help you grow and that could really help you make your relationships better. When you are so busy telling your partner about why they’re wrong, you’re not hearing, what about that actually makes sense?

You know how I wonder why they did feel that way with me? Could I have done something different in that moment that would have felt nicer for them? It’s very important that we are able to reflect on how we are showing up in relationships. Because if we’re not doing that, we don’t have the opportunity to gain self-awareness and to grow.

It’s easy to not do that, right? That’s the simplest thing. We both know those people who experienced same issues in many relationships and sincerely believe with all their heart and soul that they are being victimized by unreasonable people.

Other people are the problem and zero reflecting on how they may be contributing to this dynamic, how they might be perceived by others, you don’t want to be one of those people, and the way to not be one of those people is to listen to what other people are saying about the way that they are experiencing you. Not that other people get to be the authority on who and what you are, right?

We’ve addressed this on many other podcasts including self-esteem, how you validate yourself, I think is important, how to limit your emotional dependence on other people. I am not talking about an all-or-nothing situation where if somebody’s mad at you and telling you all these terrible things about yourself that they’re right and you’re wrong. Let’s not go into black and white. 

It is helpful to think about, particularly if you’re hearing a sort of similar response from more than one person in your life, to think about what nuggets of truth could be there and you know what it offers you in terms of self-awareness and growth opportunities. We could talk more about how to do that, but I just want you to know it’s very easy to get so focused on defending yourself and that you can miss real growth opportunities in that. You don’t need to be a punching bag either, but again, keyword here is balance.

The other huge issue is if you are moving straight into defensiveness, is that you are also missing a huge opportunity to connect with your partner through authentic, emotionally vulnerable, empathetic communication instead of offering that emotional safety, “oh, I didn’t know you felt that way, tell me more.” Or “you know what? When I look at this from your perspective, I can understand why it felt really frustrating. Tell me more about how you’re feeling, right?” If you’re able to do that, it turns into a situation where your partner’s like, “Yes, I was very frustrated, and X, Y, Z.” 

Then they talk about it and through that experience will ultimately arrive in this place where they’re like, “Oh, thank you so much for listening to me. I feel heard, I feel better, I feel like you understand where I’m coming from. Let’s move on and go do something nice and fun because we just did right here made me love you more, right?” That’s how this works, it’s not trying to avoid conflict. It is using conflict actively to strengthen your relationship, it’s a good thing.

But again, if you’re going into defensiveness, you are not just not doing that and missing the opportunity to strengthen your relationship. You are harming it because you are pushing them away in either anger or “no, not going there with you,” or “let me tell you why I am right and you’re wrong,” and it leaves your partner feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, criticized, unheard, un, cared for all the bad things in those moments.

It is very easy to minimize the impact of those small moments on our relationships because we all have them. But I tell you what, they stack up. If that’s how your partner is experiencing you most of the time, it will begin to erode the fabric of your relationship in a very major way. I will refer you back to a podcast that I did a couple of months ago, heartbreaking podcast on “Why Relationships Fail.”

It was an author who had written a book on why his marriage ended and his subsequent growth process where he was able to reflect on what he was doing in those moments, and it was a lot of defensiveness, and every time he had great reasons for doing what he did, all made total sense, perfectly justifiable.

But that you know, five years later when his wife was done, none of it mattered. None of it mattered. I want you to avoid that experience of regret, right? Listen to that podcast, it’s called “Why Relationships Fail.” It’s on one of the resource pages that I shared with you at the beginning of this episode. It is tragic, but also very insightful, and a nice complement to what we’re talking about today with defensiveness.

But the most important thing about why we actively need to be managing defensiveness is because when anytime defensiveness happens, it runs the risk of closing off the path to being able to talk about things productively and resolve issues in a relationship.

When people experience that particularly over and over again, it sends the message that there’s no hope. We can’t communicate, we can’t talk constructively. What that turns into is that things can’t get better and when people genuinely begin believing that about their relationships, that is when relationships fail. We want to stay away from that.

Okay, so let’s also talk for just a second about the relationship between defensiveness and criticism, because this is where there’s a lot of empowerment. We’re going be talking about things very honestly and as we do, it will be to your benefit to think about “how does this apply to me and my way of being sometimes,” because that’s how you’ll be able to apply what I’m talking about to your relationship.

As we have discussed in previous sections here, when defensiveness is happening, it is in response to a perceived threat. The less defensiveness you want in your relationship, the more important it is for you to be initiating conversations with what our dear friend, the researcher John Gottman, calls a “soft startup.” Meaning that you are being very careful to avoid making somebody else feel criticized, attacked, hurting their feelings. The way you begin these conversations matters a lot.

Whenever we’re feeling frustrated or when we go into that mode of like, “Where’s the suggestion box? I would like to file a complaint about something that is happening in this relationship.” You know, we can lose sight of the fact that even though we think that we are trying to have an authentic conversation about our legitimate feelings, which is all good, we can be coming across as critical, right? That we’re focusing on what’s wrong, what we’re unhappy about, what isn’t working, and we need to manage that if the hope is for there to be less defensiveness in our relationship.

It is also true that people who have a lot of instinctive defensiveness have oftentimes experienced a lot of criticism or even emotional abuse early in their lives. And they will project criticism, they will experience us as being critical, hostile, whatever, through the lens of their early life experiences.

If you know that about your partner, it is that much more vital that you come into these situations very carefully in order to lower the likelihood that you’re going to get a face full of defensiveness in response. The way that we are experienced, some of that we can control, some of it we can’t. Sometimes it really is more about the other person than it is about us.

If we are being extremely cautious, extremely tentative, and somebody’s still flipping out like we’re being horrific towards them, that’s actually its own conversation to have and that might be a great thing to take in front of a really good couple’s counselor, to be like, “I’ve noticed that when this happens, you respond to me in this way and I’m hoping that we can work through this because I love you and I would like to have a better relationship with you.” It’s something that certainly needs to be addressed.

It’s also, you know, there is a lot of empowerment to be found in doing some reflection on “how am I coming across? Am I coming across as harsh, critical? Am I kind of flying into people?” Which again, when we feel that our rights are being violated in some way or if we’re upset about something that has happened in a relationship, it’s real easy to lead with that.

To be working on very actively emotional intelligence skills to help us in these moments is vital. Because again, even if you are in an interaction with somebody who does not tend towards defensiveness, if you come in swinging with like, “let me tell you about the 17 things that you did wrong and that I am unhappy about.” 

They will become defensive in response to you. Because they’re experiencing you as threatening, unfair, unkind, and I think we can all agree that starting conversations with a lot of criticism is just generally unproductive. There’s a better way, and I understand that here’s the point in couple’s counseling where somebody will say to me, “but this keeps happening, and so I’m frustrated about it, so I’m entitled to be critical.” Like, No, actually you’re still not if you would like to get a more productive, more beneficial response from your partner.

It goes into this thing that can be really hard to wrap our heads around and our hearts around, but when you get it, it changes so many things about your relationship. We cannot control what other people do or don’t do, but what we can control is keeping our side of the street really clean because the way that we relate to others generates a response. People don’t just do things, they are responding to us in communication systems. Be very, very, very aware of the relationship between defensiveness and criticism.

If you would like to have a relationship with less defensiveness in it, it will be very important for you to bump up the emotional safety in very, very active ways. I have recorded podcasts on the topic of emotional safety. I have recorded other podcasts on these, like, pursue withdrawal cycles that can get started. Again, you have the resources. I told you where to find it. I won’t bore you with it again, but check those out because there’s a lot here and it is also, I think, important for us to be aware of our filter.

If we are feeling defensive in the moment, right, it can also be very helpful to think about why that is. We’re not going to change it. Again, this is going into very old limbic brain stuff. You know, these feelings happen, but the degree to which we can coach ourselves into an experience of emotional safety, the less defensive we’ll feel because we won’t feel as attacked. 

For example, if you tend to feel defensive, it’s very likely that you experience somebody else telling you how they feel about something you’re doing as being critical, threatening, hostile, whatever. There’s a reason for that. You know, what are your core beliefs about somebody sharing feelings of unhappiness?

If you had a parent who was very difficult to please and gave you a very hard time about things, even if your partner in a very kind, loving, nice as possible way says, “you know, I really prefer it when you do this, instead of that.” You may still have this reflexive, “I’m being attacked, I’m being criticized,” this is a catastrophic kind of reaction that is out of proportion to what they are bringing into this.

It’s just super important to be working on that self-awareness, self-management, understanding that you have this response, understanding why you have it, a lot of self-compassion. But being very active, you know what, I’m hearing them say, “You’re lazy, you’re worthless, you’re incompetent, you’re not good enough.” That’s not actually what they’re saying, they’re saying they like it more when I put my socks in the hamper instead of next to the hamper. Maybe I need to calm down.

You know, it’s like these little micro-moments. This is emotional intelligence, being able to regulate yourself is really the hallmark of emotional intelligence and yes, I have podcasts on emotional intelligence too. I have a whole section on emotional intelligence on the website, all for you. Check it out.

Furthermore, one other thing that I will mention that I think is just worthy of recognition and possible exploration is that if we tend to have difficulty loving ourselves, regulating our own self-esteem, our own sense of self-worth, what happens is if we’re not able to kind of feel okay on our own steam, essentially, we begin really looking to others for confirmation of our worthiness and we can become very dependent on how we are perceived by others to regulate our own sense of self.

For example, “I feel good about myself when other people are telling me nice things about me or being extra nice to me,” and everybody likes that. But where it gets hard is that if somebody really struggles with low self-esteem, struggles to kind of just feel worthy on their own, they become very sensitive to any real or imagined criticism, displeasure, anything like that coming from other people.

It feels really catastrophic because it’s not just somebody saying, “Could you buy ham instead of turkey the next time you go to the store?” It turns into this like statement of their own self-worth, it just turns into a lot of things. If you have noticed this happening in either yourself or your partner, it’s all right. You know, we all have our stuff, but that would be an indication. 

It might be worth getting into some therapy to do a little bit of exploration around what is that about. You know, “what did I not get maybe when I was young in terms of, you know, what did I need in order to develop healthy self-esteem, a healthy sense of self-worth?”

“Now, how do I figure out how to do that for myself as an adult so I don’t keep having these like weird category five reactions to fairly benign relationship situations?” This is a solvable problem, you can do this. I’ve recorded podcasts on the subject of how to help love yourself in healthy self-esteem, but truly this one can be difficult to really see and manage because of the blind spots that are inherent in it.

Remember, when we’re living inside of ourselves, we’re kind of narrating our own experiences, right? We’re filtering everything through our own belief systems, and it’s easy to not even see how we are reacting to things based on early life experiences, old stories, old messages, old core beliefs because they are so ingrained in us. They’re so automatic that like we don’t even see them at.

It can be very powerful to be working with a good therapist who can help illuminate those blind spots, bring them into your awareness, and then also be teaching you skills and strategies for what to do differently, what to do instead, how to rebuild a more supportive inner narrative so that you can retain your emotional equilibrium, even if somebody is displeased with you for some reason because that always happens in relationships. 

That’s what relationships are in a lot of ways, having authentic conversations. It gives you the opportunity to understand your partner in a different way, be responsive to them, and vice versa. If the level of emotional catastrophe is to the point where you’re not able to do that with someone, it’s going to impact you, not just in this relationship, but in every relationship.

You deserve to have wonderful relationships. That would be a growth opportunity. Okay, so now let’s talk about some concrete things that you can do a little differently in order to get better results in your relationship. First of all, let’s talk about what to do instead of defending yourself in situations where you are feeling rightly or wrongly attacked or threatened.

First of all, it’s critically important that you simply recognize how you are feeling in these moments. To be able to literally say to yourself, “I am feeling activated, I’m feeling upset, I am feeling attacked. I am feeling like I want to tell them why they are inappropriate and wrong for saying what they just said to me.” You know, like all the things.

Just slow down. You know, “when I feel like this, I am not going to take any action. Actually, I am not going to do what I feel like doing. I’m going to slow down and give myself a little bit of time to figure out how to respond in a different and more helpful way than I feel like responding right now.”

What you do is you say, “Thank you so much for telling me how you felt. I heard what you said, I’m processing this, I think I’m feeling activated and I don’t know if I can have a productive conversation right this very second because it’s triggering defensive stuff in me. I know this is important, I want to talk about it. I want this to go well. I am going to take a quick walk, take a quick shower. I am going to go and come.”

Whatever you need to do, but you have to communicate what’s happening and you could say,  “I’m just, I’m feeling flooded.” I did a podcast on emotional flooding. That may also be helpful to you, like just, you know, but figuring out what it is, telling your partner how you feel, and giving yourself and your relationship permission to, you know, everybody calm down and let’s just do this calmly.

Now, if you are in a place where you’re like, okay, I am calm enough to handle myself in productive ways, even though I’m having feelings. Step one, just turn off everything that you want to say and go into listening mode, be generous. Say to yourself, “I am just going to listen. I am going to try to understand what my partner or this person is telling me right now even though you know, I may have a different perspective, I may see it differently.” 

But really cranking up that empathy skill. How do they feel? You know, we have time, I love them, they love me. I’m going to go first, I’m going to understand them. Taking the time to do that, and then also reflecting back what you hear.

“I hear you say that this feels upsetting to you, that you’re feeling disappointed.” As you do, you know, try to go for the noble intentions, right, the vulnerable things. You can even go deeper into it, you know, like, “I can understand why you would feel this way, because we have had this conversation before and I told you that I would do this a little bit differently and I didn’t, and when I put myself in your shoes, I can understand why this feels frustrating.”

I know that’s hard to do, but the degree to which you are able to calm down and feel safe on the inside will allow you to be able to do this. It’s very difficult to be empathetic and compassionate to somebody when we are feeling attacked and persecuted.

Your ability to help yourself feel safe on the inside will give you the ability to communicate constructively and well in these situations, which is just going into listening mode. Going into “I understand you, and I am going to help you understand that I am understanding you by talking about how you feel for a while and why that makes sense.”

Other strategies that you can use to help yourself feel safer in that moment is to avoid any tendency to assume that your partner or whoever is trying to be mean to you, that they have malevolent intentions, that they’re trying to attack you, that they’re communicating with you maybe in a critical way because of their character flaws.

You know, we need to have grace for other people that just like we say things in the moment when we are heated, because we have every right in the world to because X, Y, Z happened and we’re upset right now, and we’re just being authentic. That is also true for your partner. 

To just be, you know, measuring other people by the same yardstick that you use to measure yourself is always a great strategy, and then avoiding the tendency to judge them, right? We’re all learning and growing. Could they have started that conversation better? Sure. You can also change this dynamic and have a positive outcome anyway by managing your response to it, right?

So, work on validating your partner’s feelings, work on taking some big, deep, slow breaths and you know, taking some responsibility for the things that are your responsibility in those moments. The goal here is to be understanding your partner, their point of view, helping them feel loved by you. You do not have to agree with everything, but you know, if you are in a relationship with a person who is, you know, we are all weirdos in our own unique way. The person that you’re in a relationship with has their own preferences, quirks, needs, wounds triggers, right? It is our responsibility to be a good partner for this person.

Even if we didn’t intend to be hurtful, or even if we did something that would not have impacted us had somebody else done said thing to us, we are in a relationship with somebody who cares about whatever just happened.

To take responsibility for, “if I’m in a relationship with you, my responsibility is to be a good partner for you. What I am understanding is that in order for this to feel better for you, here’s what you need from me,” right? Give your partner a lot of opportunity to talk, breathe through the defensiveness, kind of behave in the opposite way, which is leaning in as opposed to defending yourself.

Then see if you can have a productive conversation around, “okay, you know what? Thanks for telling me how you feel. I have a different perspective, I want to make sure that you feel understood by me. But I also would just like to share with you what’s coming up for me is that. Okay, so asking permission before diving in. If you’ve done a good job of listening and validating your partner’s feelings, unless you are actually married to a narcissistic sociopath, which can happen, but it’s rare. You know, you’re with somebody who also loves you and who wants to have a good relationship with you.

You know, “okay yes. Tell me your perspective,” right? Because you do have a voice here as well, and you deserve to also be in an emotionally safe relationship. This is how we create it, right?

If you were feeling hurt by anything that happened in that, you know, it would be if and if it’s safe to, nice to talk about your own vulnerable feelings. Like, “I hear what you’re saying about the dishes or what, I stayed out too late or whatever. You know, what comes up for me in these moments, that makes it so hard for me is that I feel like you don’t trust me or I feel like you think I’m out to get you in some ways. Can you please give me the benefit of the doubt? Or let’s find a more constructive way to solve this problem rather than communicating with me in a way that makes me feel like you’re being mean to me. It makes me feel criticized, it makes me feel attacked.”

It’s okay to say that. If you’re able to do this, the conflict won’t escalate. Your partner won’t get louder and more aggressive because they won’t need to. You’re listening, you’re being responsive, you’re hearing them, and you can both walk away from this conversation feeling more connected because of it.

Now, on the flip side of this, if you would like to lower the odds of creating a defensive reaction in somebody else, again, avoid communicating in a way that conveys criticism, contempt, blame any kind of hostility, because everything can change in your relationship when you recognize that criticism and blame, coming at somebody in an angry way, never get the results that you want.

You know, maybe people would temporarily change their behavior, but you can’t make people behave in different ways by being mean to them. Typically, that works well briefly for young children, and it leaves scars. Let’s all find different ways of relating to the people that we love, and furthermore, practicing soft startup skills.

There are many ways of going about this, and even just the timing. You know, “I’ve had something on my mind lately that I’d really like to talk with you about. You know, it’s probably going to be a bigger conversation. I think we’ll probably end up talking about things that are important for both of us. I want to make sure that we’re both in the right place to do that.

Could we do that now or maybe later, I know you were going to do X, Y, Z with your friend? This is a good time.” You know, coming into it in a curious, kind of open way and also then being very careful to do a lot of even journaling, self-awareness work prior to that conversation around, “what is this really about for me?”

Okay, yes, “I am mad about this situation. Got that, but why? What is this attached to for me?” When people are upset or frustrated, it’s generally because on a deep level, they are either feeling scared or they’re feeling hurt. I bet that’s true for you too. Think about the most recent thing that you were mad at your partner about and ask yourself, “Am I feeling upset because my feelings were hurt or because this like triggered some kind of anxiety thing in me?”

Do some work there because then when you open the door to this conversation, you can say, you know, “I’ve been reflecting on the reaction that I have to X, Y, Z situation and I think what’s going on is that it hurts my feelings.” Because you know, and you could share some of these early life experiences.

“I know this is a trigger for me,” and saying things too, but like, help your partner feel more safe with you in these moments. “I know you love me, I know you’re not out to get me. I know that you’re not intending for this to be, you know, bad. Maybe, you know, it’s just some of our differences. But I know that you have good intentions, but this still feels bad for me and I’m so hopeful that we can figure out a way to make this feel better for both of us. Because I know that you don’t want to make me feel bad either,” right?

What you’re doing here is like you’re really clearly communicating to your partner, “you are safe with me, I don’t think you’re a terrible person, I don’t think that you’ve done everything wrong, I know that I’m reacting to this in a way that I’m taking responsibility for.” All those things that you can do will absolutely lower defensiveness. Even just a simple thing too, understanding that defensiveness happens when people get threatened.

Even if you see defensiveness starting to happen, that is just a signal around, “my partner is really upset and they can’t have a productive conversation with me right now. I’m going to just hear what they have to say for a while,” even if what you’re listening to is their defensiveness. 

“I see what you’re telling me, these are the reasons why you’re having a negative reaction to this. Makes sense. Thank you for sharing this with me. It feels really challenging when I say these things to you. It makes you feel criticized by me, I get that, not my intention. Of course, you don’t want to be defensive yourself right now, do you?”

But anyway, these are some kinds of things that you can say that will de-escalate it. Also just know what’s going on and just giving people time. I mean, there’s physiological stuff that’s happening as well here. When people get escalated, it’s very difficult for them to listen. You know, even in my own personal relationship, you know, I am married to a lovely, loving man who tends to get defensive, just sort of reflexively, and it’s okay. 

It doesn’t even bother me anymore. We’ve been together for this long. I’ll say something and I’ll be like, okay. What I know is that he just needs to calm down, right? We can talk about things in these moments, I understand that in these moments when he’s activated, it’s not going to be the, you know, like come to Jesus kind of conversation, and several hours later or the next day, when he’s in a different place, we can totally have a productive conversation.

But I need to not be attached to him not getting defensive in the moment that I bring something up. Because that’s just, it’s not how he’s wired, it’s who he is and I love him and it’s okay. There’s that we also need to like modify our expectations based on who we understand our partners to be and what they need from us because that’s really what love is, right?

Yeah, I hope that those are ideas that help you and then absolutely, when you are both in a constructive place when listening can happen, to be super focused on “how can I communicate in a way that is authentic to me and that is fair to me, but that is also emotionally safe?”

Maybe you know, “how can I make sure that I’m communicating care and respect for my partner’s feelings at the same time that I’m communicating care and respect for my own?” We can also, you know, if it comes to things that triggered us related to procedural stuff, like who does what or what happened. It can be very helpful to try to look for solutions, and the most helpful ones tend to be solutions that involve your compromise in some way.

You know, “based on what we’re talking about, here’s what I could do differently next time in order for this to feel better for you,” even if you were the one that had the original complaint because you are taking the responsibility. You’re communicating safety. And again, unless you are partnered with a monster, the response that elicit says, “You know what, you’re right. I could have handled that differently too.”  It just turns into a totally different conversation. But I will tell you that in a lot of relational situations, people have very different perspectives on the, air quote, facts of what happened.

If you notice the conversation going into the facts as you saw them, and you are then experiencing your partner, challenging you on those facts, “that’s not what happened,” back away because it’s very easy to get into super unproductive power struggles around what happened or didn’t happen. You know, what the problem was and instead coming back to the macro, right? 

“How am I feeling? What am I needing?” Let’s say like when we stay in the process, it’s always much more constructive. Be very careful to be focusing on the positive, avoiding things like “you always, you never,” like making it about somebody and really coming back to those vulnerable feelings and recognizing that your partner has the same.

Even if there’s something going on that you don’t like, make it very front and center that you love them, you like them, you think well of them generally. You know, “let’s talk about all of the positive things that you do to show me love and respect that I really appreciate.” That we are then putting whatever happened that you don’t like in context of all these other great things, which will then lower your partner’s sense of threat. That can be really helpful too. 

Okay. This is a big topic and just so you know, I mean, good grief, we’ve been talking about this for an hour on a podcast, but like this is the subject of multiple marriage counseling or couples therapy sessions that occur over weeks, over months. I hope that you did get some really helpful takeaways here, but also just know that lots of couples need to do a deeper dive into this to be practicing these skills and strategies, needing support to see not just even their blind spots, but like where these triggers come from.

You know, that’s when we can have healing conversations and not just have a better relationship, but give each other the opportunity to grow as people because of it when we’re doing this kind of reflection and personal growth work. There’s so much positive stuff here, but also just know that this kind of work is often a journey.

I always just like to caveat that, the things that we talk about in this podcast, I make them sound easy. And they require practice, they require support. Just be compassionate and patient with yourself and with your partner. If you are listening to these ideas, maybe practicing them and not getting them perfect right off the bat because we are all works in progress.

But again, I hope that this was helpful for you today, and thank you so much for listening to this. You can find so much more on healthy communication skills, dos, and don’ts of you know how to have emotional intelligence, how to have good responses from your partner, how to repair relationships, how to listen all on the blog, all totally free for you at growingself.com.

Go to the blog and podcast section, navigate to the love collection, and then from there you’ll see all kinds of content conversation… collections rather, that have more information about all the things that we’ve been talking about today, all the podcasts that I’ve mentioned previously. You’ll find there, I’ve organized everything into little Spotify playlists for you. So, hopefully, they’re easy to find and I’ll be back in touch again next time with another episode.

In the meantime, please enjoy The Cramps. Take care, you guys.


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