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I'm A Relationship Expert & These Are My Top Tips To Keep Arguments From Blowing Up

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
September 19, 2023
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
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.
Image by Clique Images / Stocksy
September 19, 2023

If open and honest communication is necessary for a healthy relationship, then so, too, is the ability to sit and listen when a partner brings up an issue. As a marriage therapist, people often come to me because they think they need to work on the first part, when often I find it's the latter that they're struggling with. 

For many of us, when a partner presents us with a complaint or feeling of disappointment related to us, the immediate reaction is to try to clear our name, explain our side of the story, and avoid blame—a reaction otherwise known as defensiveness.

That defensiveness often turns a small issue that could've been resolved easily into a full-blown argument. Most of us know how frustrating it feels to deal with a partner who's being defensive about something that you don't mean as an attack, or worse, someone who's defensive about something that they ought to be taking accountability for. 

We're all guilty of defensive behavior from time to time, so it's worth turning a reflective gaze toward ourselves in the midst of conflict to ensure we're taking steps to mitigate our own defensiveness. Here's how to do so. 

How to avoid getting defensive


Understand what causes defensiveness

Defensiveness stems from hearing a comment from another person and interpreting it as an attack (regardless of whether it actually is). Whenever you feel under attack, your body floods with warning chemicals that set off your fight-or-flight response. Once these chemicals are present, you can only comprehend a tiny fraction of what's going on, your ability to see the whole picture shrinks, and the certainty that you're in the right expands. 

Let's say you encounter a tiger out in the wilderness. You certainly aren't going to be stopping to smell the grass or wondering what direction the tiger came from. Your entire system focuses on how to escape or how to kill the tiger before it kills you—there's no room in the situation for anything other than certainty and action.

Nowadays, most of us aren't fending off tigers in our day-to-day lives, but our brains still register possible threats in much the same way. If you come home from a hard day at work feeling tired and stressed, and your partner is annoyed because you forgot to pick up the groceries, for instance, that complaint may feel almost as threatening as the sight of the tiger, so you might react as if you were fighting for your life.


Identify your triggers

One of our challenges as individuals is to identify the particular triggers that make us want to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn when we face potential conflict. Are there certain types of questions, tones of voice, accusations, or dynamics that tend to send you into high-alert mode? 

Imagine there are two switches that control how we hear, understand, and respond. The first switch turns on a soft, warm light and is called "connection." When it's on, it enhances the other colors in the room and makes us feel open and receptive. The second switch turns on a harsh red light and is called "protection." It casts a fearful, angry shadow on everything in the room.

What turns on your "protection switch," and how can you signal to yourself that it's time to flip it back to connection? 


Learn to self-soothe

One of the most important love skills I teach in my relationship classes is the art of self-soothing. Couples are sometimes surprised to find how much of the work of sustaining a healthy, long-lasting relationship starts with working on yourself

Self-soothing allows us to calm ourselves until the emotional intensity of the situation cools. Once we're in a calmer state of mind, it becomes easier to hear our partner out and respond without getting defensiveness. Remember, nobody can speak fairly or hear clearly when triggered.

There are many ways to self-soothe, whether that's practicing slow breathing in the moment, taking a five-minute pause from the conversation to decompress, or simply identifying any exaggeratedly negative thoughts flooding your head and replacing them with more realistic ones.

Try saying to yourself, "If I could be curious about my partner's issue instead of defensive about it, what might I discover about her needs or perspective?" 

The takeaway

Defensiveness involves using a fight-or-flight mindset in a situation that actually calls for connection and closeness. The person bringing up the issue likely simply needs comfort, support, or validation that their feelings matter, but when faced with a defensive reaction from their partner, they usually end up feeling unheard or even retaliated against. As both people start to turn up the fire, it's easy for conversations to go sideways. 

Instead, we can cut off that loop from the beginning by learning to recognize and curb our defensive reactions. When we can lay down our defenses, we're able to focus on truly listening to our partner's concerns and identifying solutions—rather than trying to challenge or escape the issue.

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT author page.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, 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, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.