How do you stop defensiveness from harming your relationship?
Your partner hurt your feelings or crossed a line. You want to share how you feel, but you never feel heard. Better yet, you have tried so many ways to talk about your feelings and get nowhere. They respond with explanation and frustration. They may say, “I would have gotten that done sooner, but I was busy.” Or “You are always so critical.” While we can’t control how your partner responds, we can increase the chance that they will listen by communicating in a positive and constructive way.
What is Defensiveness?
Defensiveness is one of the main ingredients to create conflict within a relationship. A defensive person is emotionally closed off, argumentative, and often exhibits negative body language like crossed arms. They will consistently deflect the conversation away from the original issue and either refuse to engage or launch loosely related counterattacks on their partner.
When one person gets defensive, it sends a message to the other person that their feelings and experiences don’t matter. It’s rarely intentional – it’s a quick, knee-jerk reaction. It’s an internal mechanism that protects the defensive partner from guilt or doubt about their own behavior, but at the same time blocks compassion for the other person’s hurt. People who are defensive have difficulty taking responsibility for their actions and often feel uncomfortable being “wrong.” The root of that is because accepting responsibility would make them feel as if they have failed.
Think of defensiveness like a spotlight. When you share pain with your loved one, that bright spotlight shifts from you and on to them. The defensiveness is a way that shifts the spotlight, instead of keeping it on what really matters – the initial issue – the defensive partner looks to shine it anywhere else. The hurt gets lost in translation and a small skirmish turns into a legendary war.
Mistakes that cause your partner to become defensive
Relationships are like baby mobiles; if you tug on one side, the whole structure moves. If you shift your response, even just a little bit, the other person will automatically have to change their behavior. You have a large influence in the communication; it can be either positive or negative. Some people accidentally keep the defensiveness alive by making some big mistakes. What are these?
Mistake #1: The Blame Game
Never start a conversation with the blame game. Blaming makes assumptions on a person’s actions or emotions and can leave them feeling attacked, which then results in self-protection measures like defensiveness. Specifically, there are a few words to avoid in the blame language. Don’t start your sentences with the word “you” (“You didn’t hear me again! You just don’t care about how I feel.”).
Mistake #2: Using Global Language
When you are hurt and want your partner to hear you, try to avoid using absolutes such as “never” or “always.” These words give no wiggle room and can be very critical, causing a person to defend their position and not hear your main issue.
Mistake #3: Critical and Negative Comments
Another mistake people have with communication is they talk more about when the person got something wrong or about the problems, and give little positive reinforcement and praise. Try to incorporate praise and reinforcement in your daily conversations with your partner – these can be as simple as “I really appreciate you making dinner for me, it’s really great” or “I love that you kiss me goodbye every morning.”
Being aware of what defensiveness is and what leads to it is the first step in preventing it from blocking your communication. When one person gets defensive, it sends a message to the other person that their feelings and experiences don’t matter – which is not the case. By learning how to recognize when you or your partner is getting defensive, you can stop the defensiveness from becoming a roadblock in your communication.
About Jennine Estes, MFT
Think of me as your relationship consultant, I'm your neutral third party that can help you untangle the emotions and help you figure out what's really going on. I am a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Diego, CA. Certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. Supervisor. I write relationship and self growth advice for my column Relationships in the Raw. Creator of #BeingLOVEDIs campaign. MFC#47653