Are You Overly Defensive? A Couples Therapist Explains The No.1 Problem In Communication
Most relationship advice emphasizes the importance of being open and honest about issues in your relationship, but rarely do they tell us how to deal with being on the receiving end of those complaints.
How do you sit there calmly while your partner describes you as selfish, moody, careless, lazy, untrustworthy, or all of the above? How do you lovingly listen to your partner question your actions and say things that make you feel like they’re dragging your character through the mud?
If honesty and communication are necessary for a healthy relationship (as we all know by now), then so too are true listening and—yes—facing criticism gracefully.
One of the most common reasons people come to me for relationship support is because they’re dealing with a defensive partner. Defensiveness is a natural response to criticism, but ultimately it’s unhelpful in the project of sustaining a functional and lasting relationship.
So, here’s how to tell if you struggle with defensiveness—and what to do instead.
Why some people might be more prone to defensiveness
When someone tells us they disapprove of us or points out our faults, it’s easy to understand why that might put someone on the defense. But often, a person who is truly defensive hears disapproval and sees a pointed finger to their faults even when the other person isn’t doing that.
Their partner might say, “The dinner was a little too hot for me,” or “I was annoyed you canceled date night again,” or “You forgot to tell me my sister called.” None of those sentences represent an attack, yet a defensive person would hear it as such and move to defend themselves.
A person’s response to this kind of feedback (felt as criticism) depends on a variety of factors, including temperament, history, and even self-esteem. Some people simply have nervous systems that respond more intensely and frequently to sensory stimulation, such that they have a more exaggerated startle response than others do—meaning perceived criticisms may cause them to more quickly jump to a defensive position.
For others, the behavior stems from childhood experiences. For example, if a parent shamed and harshly punished them often as a child, they may grow up with heightened self-protective instincts that flare up whenever they see someone upset.
3 unproductive responses to criticism
Whenever you perceive a threat in your environment, that threat registers in the “old” part of your brain. That is, it triggers the same instincts that helped our ancient ancestors act quickly and effectively when faced with dangerous predators. Your body is flooded with neurotransmitters and hormones that alert you to the danger and prepare you for battle, sending you into fight-or-flight mode. Or more specifically: fight, flight, or freeze.
While these responses made sense if you were faced with a wild boar that’s actually likely to kill you, they’re far less effective (and often counterproductive) when it comes to fielding an upsetting comment from someone you otherwise love.
Here's what each of these defensive responses might look like in the context of a relationship:
The fight defense
The “fight” response is the most classic form of defensive behavior. When you’re feeling under attack, you return the fire. Your temper might get the best of you, and you tend to say harsh things in the heat of the moment. You might also be quick to point out when your partner is being what you perceive to be a hypocrite, or any other ways your partner has been bothering you lately.
Let’s say you come home from a long day at work, and your partner asks, “Did you forget to pick up the sushi?”
You snap, “All I need today is your criticism.”
Your partner replies, “I just asked a simple question.”
You say, “With you, nothing is simple. It’s always about what I do wrong. What about you? What about my birthday you forgot? What about Thursday, when you locked your keys in the car? Your brother always said you were an airhead.”
People who use the fight response believe “the best offense is a good defense,” deflecting criticism through retaliation. They use the faults and transgressions of the other person against them, or they shoot off all sorts of evidence attempting to disprove the complaint and avoid being blamed.
The flee defense
If you feel the urge to run from stressful conversations, you’re experiencing the “flee” response. If you tend to flee, most likely your body is wired in such a way that you want to run away to avoid harm or entrapment. This might look like denying problems, procrastinating or pushing off hard talks, or withdrawal in the face of criticism.
When you flee, you act on the belief, “If I get away from you, and you can’t catch me, then you can’t hurt me.”
For instance, your partner asks, “Did you forget the sushi?”
You reply, “Oh, well, I thought we could make something tonight. Eating out is getting expensive.”
Your partner replies, “But we are low on everything, and you said you’d get dinner.”
You say, “Look, I can’t deal with this right now. I’ve got a lot of reports to finish tonight. I’ll get sushi tomorrow.”
You grab some cheese and crackers, head to your study, and shut the door.
The freeze defense
Most people are familiar with the concept of fight-or-flight, but there’s also a third response the body may have to danger: to freeze.
Freezing is akin to “playing dead” to avoid a harmful figure’s attention. If you freeze, you’ll sense your IQ dropping several points. As the conversation gets tense, you may suddenly feel like you can’t find your words or form coherent thoughts. The underlying belief fueling this behavior: “If I’m quiet and don’t draw attention, I’m less likely to get hurt.”
Freezers may feel disconnected, foggy, or immobilized by fear or stress, and they may attempt to deflect trouble with a plea for sympathy.
Your partner asks, “Did you forget to pick up the sushi?”
You say, “Oh shoot. I’m sorry. I’m not really feeling well. I hope you’re not mad.”
Your partner replies, “I’m not mad, but I wish you’d remembered.”
You say, “I’ve forgotten other things in the past few days. In fact, I think I might be running a fever.”
You go lie down on the couch.
What to do instead
We can’t rewire our brains to stop its initial primal reaction to fight, flee, or freeze in the face of danger, but we can learn to override our first reaction and behave much more constructively.
In the case of the sushi, for example, with some mental and emotional adjustment, we can learn to respond with something like “I’m sorry, I did forget it,” and then offer to go back and get it. Often our partner just needs to register disappointment, and once they feel heard, they’ll respond with something like, “Hey, it’s okay. I know you had a long day.” Then it’s over. Or they may want you to go back out to get the meal. Either way, a small thing stays a small thing.
It can also help to consciously reach for a different response in moments when you’re feeling the urge to fight, flee, or freeze.
Each of these instincts was designed by nature to help us respond to urgent danger, so naturally they’re also the exact opposite of what’s needed in our intimate relationships, where the point is to come closer rather than to get away. Thus, choosing to make a new, counter-instinctual move when these instincts are triggered can help.
- If your instinct is to fight in the face of perceived criticism, use that as a cue to stretch for affectionate generosity instead—that is, giving your partner the benefit of the doubt and reminding yourself they may have had a hard day that’s impacting the way they’re showing up to the conversation.
- If your instinct is to run away from the conflict, remind yourself that what your partner actually needs is likely just a sign that you’re still connected to them.
- If your instinct is to freeze, try taking an affirmative action toward a resolution—even if that’s just agreeing to listen to your partner and make a plan together later.
With time and practice, we can learn to manage the fear that sprouts up in the face of criticism. Once we listen long enough to understand our partner’s point of view, often we find that the issue need not be as catastrophic as our initial instincts would have had us believe.
With an open ear and an open heart, a harmonious solution is usually right around the corner.
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.