12 Truths About Defensive Behavior

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist By Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Linda Carroll is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981.
Couple Talking in the Kitchen

Image by Javier Díez / Stocksy

We are all wired to protect ourselves, and this can lead to defensive behavior. But if you find that either you or your partner is always on guard, waiting on the front lines to pounce into a defensive mode of communicating, it can be deeply harmful to the relationship.

Here are 12 truths about defensiveness that can help us better understand this self-protecting impulse. In understanding defensiveness better, we can learn to dismantle it as a habit and begin engaging more compassionately and openly in our relationships.

1. Defensiveness is an impulse.

To be defensive is to react with an overprotective mentality so a situation that perhaps doesn't warrant it. Defensiveness is an impulsive and reactive mode of responding to a situation or conversation. Rather than listening with an open heart, we respond with our metaphorical shields up and weapons drawn.

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2. All relationships experience defensiveness sometimes.

Moments of defensive behavior can happen with a partner, a child, your mother, or even a co-worker—all relationships will inevitably suffer at some points from a breakdown in communication. For example, your husband forgets to pass along a message, your wife forgets to pick up milk at the store, or your partner says something that inadvertently hurts your feelings. Getting defensive in response to disruptions like these in your relationship is natural. But it's all about your recovery time: Holding onto a defensive attitude is a decidedly different way of approaching your relationship than recognizing that you're being defensive and letting it go.

3. Being honest is not the same as being defensive.

If your partner forgets to call, you need to express how you feel. Saying, "I'm upset you didn't call when you said you would" is not defensive but open and honest. It gives your partner the benefit of the doubt, allowing, in the best of circumstances, for them to repair the situation with a simple, "I'm sorry. How can I make this situation better?" or "What would you prefer I do next time?"

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4. Conflict allows for reconnection (and more).

The "conflict cycle" goes like this: connect, rupture, protest, repair, and reconnect. The two most important steps of an "ideal conflict" are protest and repair. Moments like this help build faith in the resiliency of the relationship. Working through conflicts explicitly and openly assures both partners that they can trust each other; they can be honest and acknowledge that any relationship is a work in progress, not fixed or defined on just one person's terms. Remember, when it comes time to protest, be sure your complaint is stated considerately enough not to punish or shame your loved one.

5. One way to move past defensive behavior is to acknowledge it.

Of course, it's difficult to give and receive healthy criticism if we're clinging to a defensive attitude. If you feel yourself become defensive, try to see if you can simply acknowledge it and work through the conflict as honestly and generously as possible. If your partner is giving you criticism that is making you feel defensive, can you express why?

It's important that you learn to work through defensive behavior in a relationship because if we don't learn how to deal with our grievances head-on, inevitably we deal with them indirectly. Most often this surfaces in more toxic forms: by teasing or making snide comments, holding grudges, or by growing more indifferent to our partner over time.

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6. Our brains are wired for both connection and defensiveness.

We are hardwired for both connection to others and protection for ourselves. In the first stage of love, when we're infatuated by the freshness and excitement of new romance, we anticipate the best in our new partner. And we're rewarded because each thing they say and do activates the connection center of our brain. We view their actions, intentions, and language through the lens of our positive vision. As the chemistry of the "honeymoon phase" shifts, a second kind of circuitry emerges, one that is about sustainable connection.

So in times of defensiveness—when your natural self-protection instincts set in—see if you can tap into our naturally coexistent desire to connect. Remember the enduring connection from that first stage of love, and try to access the feelings that first made you predisposed toward generosity and understanding at the outset of your relationship.

7. Withdrawal is not actually a great way to protect ourselves.

When we experience our partner as a threat, we withdraw to protect ourselves from further injury. Yet withdrawal and disconnection are what continue to create trouble. At the heart of our vulnerability lies the feeling that we've been hurt by someone we love. We may ache for them to "return" and reconnect, yet our behavior is the last thing that would invite them back. So when you least feel like reaching out to connect, take a risk and try it; the results will pay off (much more than isolating yourself).

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8. We all need to be able to receive criticism.

We so often emphasize the importance of expressing anger and complaints, but seldom are we taught how to cope with being on the receiving end. How do you sit calmly and quietly while your partner laments that you're neither emotionally available nor trustworthy? How do you silence your inner-lawyer's constant stream of counterarguments? Ask yourself these questions, and find a way to find inner peace during criticism so you won't react defensively.

9. Some people are more prone to defensive behavior than others.

Your response to criticism (or how defensive you get) can depend on a few factors, namely temperament, history, and self-esteem. Keep this in mind for both yourself and your partner; it's always important to remember that we all have a variety of influencing factors when it comes to our behavior.

In regards to defensive behavior, some people are just more prone to it. Some people have nervous systems that respond more frequently and intensely to sensory stimulation. They may have a more exaggerated startle response than other people do, even in the same family. They may often hear themselves described as "too sensitive" or "thin-skinned." People who are more prone to defensiveness may perceive an attack in certain situations in which people with resilient and calm temperaments would perceive none. Experiment with viewing the situation from different vantage points.

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10. Your childhood history has a lot to do with how you respond to criticism.

We all carry baggage with us from childhood—defensiveness is no different. If your parents shamed you often and punished you harshly, it's likely that, as an adult, you quickly feel self-protective whenever you see someone upset and angry about something. The reasons for defensiveness are myriad and important to understand, but they don't take away the need to learn how to rewire ourselves away from the impulse to immediately self-protect.

11. Resentment doesn't do us any good.

The cost to our intimate relationships when we aren't willing to protest (whether out of fear, self-doubt, an impulse to people-please, and so on) is that we literally make it impossible for the issues in the relationship to heal. The relationship begins to smolder with resentments that undermine us in ways they wouldn't if expressed freely in the first place. Remember this when you're thinking of burying issues under the rug instead of dealing with them.

12. When done lovingly criticism leads to connection.

Relationships give us opportunities to grow in ways that make us more loving, accepting, and whole. Learning to hear our partners complaints with curiosity and openness not only deepens the connection between us but helps us be more open in all of our relationships. Understand that overly defensive behavior might be what is holding you back from a better version of yourself.

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