This is another one of Dr. Gottman’s “four horsemen of the apocalypse” – elements which he identified as being especially damaging to couple relationships. The other two we’ve talked about so far are stonewalling and criticism. Defensiveness can become almost constantly present when a relationship is on the rocks. Let’s look at a few key factors that contribute to it, how it impacts your relationship, and how to avoid it.
Chances are, you’ve experienced some sort of defensiveness in your lifetime. Most people have. When one partner is critical, the other typically responds with defensiveness because the criticism presents a perceived attack – hence, the need to defend oneself.
What is defensiveness?
You can tell that you’re being defensive when you start blaming others. This might sound something like, “I didn’t have time to take out the trash! You know how busy I am, why didn’t you just do it?” It’s easy to see how the response is completely void of personal responsibility and turns the problem back on the partner.
In general, defensiveness includes one of the following elements:
- Excuses – blaming outside forces (your boss! the weather! the dog!) to explain how the problem is not your fault
- Complaining – instead of hearing your partner’s complaint, you respond to your partner’s complaint with another complaint about him/her
- Disagreeing – you are so busy trying to ward off your partner’s complaint that you don’t listen to what they are saying; “That’s not true, you’re the one who …” “I did that because you did this…”
- Yes-butting – you begin by agreeing, but end up disagreeing with your partner; “That’s a great point, but it’s completely irrelevant in this situation.”
- Repeating – you sound like a broken record, refusing to listen to what your partner says
- Whining – you focus on explaining why it’s not fair, rather than listening to what your partner is saying
What unspoken messages does defensiveness send?
When you are defensive, you are dismissing your partner’s concerns. This leaves them feeling like you don’t care about him/her, that you are trying to convince him/her to buy into your, or that you are simply choosing to blow off your partner’s feelings.
How can you change it?
A non-defensive response could include, “You’re right, I said I would take out the trash and I didn’t. I need to work on following through more often.” In this instance, the partner resists the urge to become defensive and accepts responsibility for their part of the problem. This will de-escalate the situation and allow you and your partner to actually address the issue.
You might also try telling your partner how you’re feeling (e.g. “I feel like I’m being attacked right now, but I want to be able to listen to what you’re saying because it’s important for me to understand you.”) or focusing on what portion of the problem you can take responsibility for
Want to learn if you struggle with conflict and communication in your relationship? Take the RELATE Assessment to get a comprehensive analysis if your current relationship health.