- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
The Damage of Defensiveness
It's a natural human instinct to defend ourselves when we feel attacked. However, this response makes arguments worse. Here's what to do about it.
I would say the vast majority of people feel attacked when their partner brings up an issue or request.
And a natural response to feeling attacked is for people to defend themselves.
It's a common human response to see our perspective as right (even though this isn't true or helpful) and to explain or justify our actions.
And while it is ok to have our own perspective and to explain ourselves, doing so immediately and angrily will not help the situation.
Research from The Gottman Institute has identified defensiveness as one of the "Four Horsemen," one of the four behaviors that best predict divorce, further highlighting how important it is to know when you're being defensive and how to stop doing it.
What Is Defensiveness?
Defensiveness is when you respond to your partner's complaint with a quick justification for your actions. It's dismissing your partner's perspective or feelings, and explaining why you weren't actually wrong in the situation. It's shifting the focus from you to them, exonerating yourself from any wrongdoing and painting them as unreasonable.
Defensiveness is incredibly common. It's a rare human who does not do this, or at least want to do this, at the onset of any tough conversation. I see it in almost every couple I work with and, despite my best efforts, I also fall prey to being defensive from time to time.
Why Do We Do it?
No one wants to be wrong. And when it comes to arguments with our partners, even more so. We see our perspective so clearly and understand why we did what we did, and it can feel like we are "right."
But guess what? Being right in an argument is usually not a victory. And it's also usually not true.
That's because there are many subjective truths when it comes to human interactions. Were you being rude or was I being sensitive? Were you passive aggressive or was I assuming the worst? We all have our own narrative that, generally speaking, paints us in a favorable light.
We act defensive because we see our very valid, very convincing perspective and want to convince the other person of it, too. We may not think we did anything wrong and don't want to be blamed. We may just desperately want our partners to see our side of things, to know that we didn't do anything with malicious intent and to go easy on us.
Why Is It a Problem, Then?
You may have a point and a very good defense (excuse, justification, whatever you call it), but it doesn't serve you to start with it.
Your partner will hear your defensiveness as denial. They will feel as though you are not listening to their perspective or understanding their hurt. And they will be right.
A defensive response is likely to cause your partner to feel even more unheard, dismissed, and as a result, sad or angry. This is not a good start to a tough conversation.
Defensiveness escalates arguments. Here's an example.
If I tell you that I get stressed when you don't put your dishes in the dishwasher and you respond with an explanation about why you don't have time to do that and how sometimes I don't put my dishes in it either, I am going to get pissed. I am going to double down on my stance, increase the intensity of my expressions, and escalate things so that you'll hear just how stressed it makes me. I would have been satisfied if you had just said, "You know what, I hear you. The kitchen being messy is stressful. Although sometimes I'm running late and won't have time to take care of my dishes, I'm going to make a real effort to put my dishes in the dishwasher." Even if you didn't put them in the dishwasher every time after that, I would have known that you understood how I felt, that you cared, and that you were trying. Instead, you dodged my request and invalidated my feelings, so now I'm going to up the ante and it's not going to be fun for either of us.
What to do Instead
1. Don't See Conversations as Attacks
Reframe your partner's complaints or any hard conversation as an opportunity to work through a problem together. Don't view feedback as an attack. Your partner needs to be able to share their hurt feelings or make requests of you, and if you always see these things as personal attacks, you will be stifling important communication in your relationship.
Keep in mind that you might not agree with your partner's complaints or requests. You may think they are being unfair or unreasonable. You may have lots of excellent examples of why they shouldn't be complaining, but for the love of your relationship, do not lead with these!
2. Empathize, Validate, and Repair
In an ideal world you would catch yourself before you say something defensive and, instead, respond with empathy, validation, and repair in the form of a commitment to change. In other words, you would acknowledge your partner's feelings, recognize why their perspective makes sense, and explain how you'll try to work on the issue. Only after doing these things should you then explain your side and ask for their understanding too.
3. Notice Your Defensiveness
Change is incremental and it's not linear.
Realistically, the first step to ending defensiveness is noticing when you're being defensive. Maybe you'll notice in the moment, or maybe you'll notice sometime after the conversation when you're reflecting on it.
The important thing is- when you notice you've been defensive, acknowledge it and own it. Tell your partner you're aware that your first response was to defend yourself instead of listen. Talk about how think that might have made them feel. Then explain how you plan to avoid being defensive next time they bring something up.
See what I did there?
Acknowledging defensiveness is just another opportunity to practice empathy, validation, and repair.
We all make mistakes in our relationships. Sometimes we make the same ones over and over again, even! But if you keep doing these three things- empathize, validate, and repair- you'll notice a positive shift. You'll be closer to each other, more open, more communicative, and more able to make small mistakes that don't turn into big issues.
Keep Trying, Even When You Falter
You're not going to suddenly stop being defensive. As I said, even I default to defending myself when my husband brings something up that I perceive as a judgment or attack. Luckily for all of us, good relationships don't require perfection.
Just keep trying. When you're defensive, try to catch yourself earlier and earlier. Apologize for not listening. Be proud when you empathize with your partner's feelings instead of justifying why you weren't wrong. Tell them how you're trying to be less defensive and acknowledge when you slip.
We are all works in progress and change is not linear. Be gentle with yourself and just keep trying.