How to End Defensiveness in Relationships: Examples & Fixes (W/ Videos)

This article tackles defensiveness in relationships.

You will learn what defensiveness is, you will see defensiveness examples, non defensive communication examples, and finally you will learn to move past defensiveness in relationships.

What’s Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a form of self protection that many of us deploy in the face of feedback, criticism and complaints.

There are three types of defensiveness:

#1. Righteous indignation

Righteous indignation is push back with an “how dare you” message.
An example of righteous indignation:

Her: You work so hard every day that you forget when it’s time to eat together
Him: You mean I work so hard to put our food on the table?

The other type of defensiveness in relationships adds a counterattack:

#2. Defensive aggressive

The most common type defensiveness in relationships does not simply defend, but includes a counter-attack.

When we say “it’s not my fault” the effect is that of communicating that “it’s not my fault because it’s your fault“.

Her: You work so hard every day that you forget when it’s time to eat together
Him: It’s not my fault if I’m the only breadwinner here  <- it’s your fault I have to work this long

And then we have the:

#3. Innocent victim

This technique works like this:

The defensive individual seemingly accepts the feedback and goes one step further.
If the feedback says the dinner is not well cooked, the recipient cries and blames himself for being a terrible cook and for fallin short of expectations.

What’s the game here?

With tears and self shaming, the defensive individuals feels like he can prevent any further attack and win our partner’s sympathy.
This is most common for women.

defensiveness in relationship

Holistic View of Defensiveness

Defensiveness is one of the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse.

As per John Gottman research, when the four horsemen of the apocalypse engulf a relationship, divorce ensues in more than 90% of the times.

The other three horsemen are: criticism, contempt and stonewalling.

Why We Get Defensive

For 99% of us defensiveness is a natural response to criticism, complaints and negative feedback.
Of course different people have different thresholds for defensiveness.

For example people with a fixed mindset are more likely to answer defensively because they always take criticism personally.
A high tendency towards defensiveness is a major issue when touchy partners get defensive even with well communicated complaints.

How Defensiveness Harms Relationships

Defensiveness does three bad things:

  1. Tells our partner we don’t care about their feelings
  2. Escalates the argument into a fight
  3. Destroy any chance of solving the issue as a team

“I Don’t Care About You” Message

Defensiveness in relationships gives our partner the feeling we are not taking their complaints and their feelings seriously.

Imagine this scenario:

Her: Oh God you’re back, why so late! Everyone’s already there, my parents will be so disappointed
Him: Oh come on, who cares, it’s just one hour, I had to work hard today

His defensiveness here makes her feel he couldn’t care less about her feelings.

Arguments’ Escalation

Defensiveness escalates fights when we hit back

Her: Did you bring the lemons I asked you do this morning?
Him: No, you know how busy I am, stop asking me sh*t, buy your own grocery, do something!

This is typical defensive attack. Instead of admitting fault and mistake, he tries to clear himself by counter-blaming.

Consequences of Defensiveness

The result of defensiveness is:

  1. Continuous fighting
  2. A sense we’re not being heard, understood and cared for
  3. Drying up of good feelings for each other

Not the kind of relationship you want.

Examples of Defensiveness in Relationships

Here are a few defensiveness examples:

#1 – Blue Valentine

This is a great example of defensiveness stemming from a hidden contemptuous and judgmental attitude.
Her passive aggressive approach is a very damaging way of voicing opinions and concerns.

Let’s watch:

Albeit her way of communicating is very poor, his defensiveness adds to the problem

Her:  It doesn’t ever disappoint you? <- doesn’t make her point clear, it might be a critique?
Him
: (starts to get irritated) Why? Why would it disappoint me? <- defensive right away
Her:  Because you have all this potential <- still unclear, is she unhappy with her husband career?
Him: So what? Why do you have to f*cking make money off your potential? <- defensive counterattack

His whole reaction is pure defensiveness. He probably feels judged feels he need to defend his lack of ambition.
But he will never know for sure if his life is unhappy because he escalates with defensiveness.
This conversation could have been a chance to understand each other and connect more deeply, but he will never know.

#2. SATC: Carrie and Aleksandr

This is an example of defensiveness following an attack with emotional out-pour:

Carrie: How could you abandon me like that when I gave up my party for you
Alex: I didn’t abandon you<- defensiveness stripped to the bones 🙂
Carrie: I sat on a bench, alone, in a museum
Alex: Let’s not do this now. I’m tired. I had a stressful day<- makes her feel uncared for

Leaving the room in the end is an example of refusing to engage, or stonewalling.

#3. The Break Up

The last one is super interesting as it’s both very sneaky and very common.
Men do this most often and that’s how many fights end up looking like he is calm and she overreacts.

Let’s watch:

Her: Oh come on, really? (…) I wanted 12. Baby wanted 12.
Him: Why would you want 12 lemons? <- sneaky defensiveness: pretends he forgot
Her: Because I’m making a 12-lemon centerpiece.
Him: So, no one’s even eating them? They’re just show lemons?  <- defends by framing her will as ludicrous
Her: (..) I’m glad you find that amusing, but I cannot fill a vase with only three lemons <- she does great in staying calm
(…)
Him: Let’s scratch the centerpiece, because the chicken could use a little lemon. Guess what? We make a better meal versus something visually nice to look at <- defends by disrespecting her idea, a power move

He frames her request as making no sense. That way, he makes her look as if she’s overreacting for nothing. This is a type of behavior that drives many women in relationships crazy.
When he says “better meal versus something visually nice” he implies her idea was silly and that her cooking needs improvement.

That fight was 90% of his making and all because he used defensiveness when he should have owned up to his mistake.

Fixing Defensiveness

For all the harm that defensiveness causes, don’t worry: there are many ways of extiparting it:

1. Avoid using criticism

A lot of defensiveness happens as a result of criticism and aggressive communication.
Avoid criticism and contempt and you’ll avoid most of the defensiveness as well.

2. Teach your partner about defensiveness

If you’re the one reading these articles and your partner doesn’t, you must take it upon yourself to teach your partner how to communicate properly.

3. Accept differences

Gender differences are overplayed by books such as Men are From Mars, but there’s no denying they exist.

He doesn’t care about a centerpiece of lemons. She should be more careful in reminding him how important it is for her or it’s likely he’ll forget.

Sometimes, you might also consider to simply pick your battles and let something else slip.

4. Soothe yourself

Being criticized is an emotional moment for many of us and that’s when defensiveness becomes our natural response.

In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail Gottman says that calming yourself is the very first step to avoid getting defensive.

5. Take responsibility

Sneaky, low value people refuse responsibility. And that’s where most of defensiveness stems from. Be a real (wo)man and stand behind your f*ck ups.
Developing a growth mindset will help you tremendously in acquiring an “extreme ownership” mindset and avoiding defensiveness.

6. Look at underlying concerns

Many fights start because our partner cannot muster the vulnerability to go to the crux of the problem. And they attack a sign instead of expressing a need.

Instead of addressing the superficial attack, you might want to address the underlying cause right away. Emotional intelligence is what will help you here.

Example:

Her: you always work so late, I’m tired of it <- the real complaint is that she wants more time with him
Him: that’s true I’ve been working a lot recently. Do you feel like I’m neglecting you?

And here’s a great video example form Ashton Kutcher.

Non Defensive Communication Examples

Defensive

Non-Defensive

 

Her:  It doesn’t ever disappoint you?
Him: (starts to get irritated) Why? Why would it disappoint me?
(escalation)

Her:  It doesn’t ever disappoint you?
Him: Hmmm what do you mean exactly…
Her:  Because you have all this potential.
Him: Thanks! What do you mean by potential and what do you think I should do with it
Her: bla bla bla
Him: I see, you have some good points. And tell me, does it disappoint you that in your opinion I’m not using my potential?

Carrie: How could you abandon me like that
Alex: I didn’t abandon you
Carrie: I sat on a bench, alone, in a museum
Alex: Let’s not do this now. I’m tired. I had a stressful day

Carrie: How could you abandon me like
(pause)
Alex: I’m sorry.
(pause)
I’m so overburdened and I can see how that must have been painful for you. Come sit here. Tell me about it.

Her: Oh come on, really? (…) I wanted 12. Baby wanted 12.
Him: Why would you want 12 lemons?
Her: Because I’m making a 12-lemon centerpiece.
Him: So, no one’s actually even eating them? They’re just show lemons?
Her: (..) I’m glad you find that amusing, but I cannot fill a vase with only three lemons.

Her: Oh come on, really? (…) I wanted 12. Baby wanted 12.
Him: Damn, I forgot! I’m so sorry.
Her: How can I do a centerpiece now
Him: Well, you can’t I suppose, it was so stressful that it just slipped my mind. I’m sorry. Was it important for you?
Her: You bet it was!! Bla bla bla…
Him: I understand, now I see your point. Sorry. What can we do now

Summary

Defensiveness in relationships prevents us from listening and connecting with our partner.

It escalates fight that often would not even need to become fights at all and it prevents us from solving the problems.

To fix defensiveness work both on how your partner communicates and how you react on it.

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