4 Signs You’re Getting Defensive, From Couples Therapists
Picture this: Your partner comes to you and brings up something you did yesterday that upset them. They seem pretty frustrated about it. But you’re a little taken aback—because you don’t think there was anything wrong with what you did. You know you didn’t mean to upset your partner, and you have a valid reason for why you did what you did. So, you explain all that to them.
“Why are you getting so defensive?” they ask.
“I’m not being defensive!” you snap back.
In the heat of the moment, you’re 100% convinced that you’re just stating the facts of the situation and sharing your point of view. And that’s not being defensive, right?
…Or is it?
How to know when you’re being defensive.
The truth is, it can be hard to recognize when we’re being defensive. Defensive behavior is so common in arguments that it may feel like just part of the normal back-and-forth of two people hashing out a disagreement.
“To be defensive is to react with an overprotective mentality to a situation that perhaps doesn't warrant it,” marriage therapist Linda Carroll, LMFT, writes at mbg. “Rather than listening with an open heart, we respond with our metaphorical shields up and weapons drawn.”
This is a tough pill to swallow, but here it goes: Any time we respond to another person’s concern by trying to defend ourselves from being blamed or at fault, we are being defensive. If you find yourself in an argument with your partner trying to explain why you didn’t do anything wrong, why you’re not the bad guy in the situation, or why they shouldn't be that upset with you, you’re more than likely being defensive.
4 examples of defensive behavior.
Here are a few examples of defensive responses, according to couples therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT:
- Over-explaining: “Well, I would have cleaned the dishes, but when I went to clean them, there was no dish detergent, and then I went to the store and…”
- Making yourself the victim: "You are always so mean to me!"
- Counter-criticizing: "I will start doing the dishes when you start taking care of the lawn better. You are always ignoring that."
- Using the word “but”: "I know the dishes are a mess, but can't you just ignore it for tonight?"
These statements may be true in your situation, she points out, but they nonetheless represent a desire to defend yourself from responsibility—and therein lies the problem. If your goal is to walk away scot-free from a conversation with your partner, you’ve missed the point.
The problem with trying to defend yourself.
Listen, we’ve all been there. It’s a natural instinct to want to defend ourselves from threats, whether that threat is a saber-tooth tiger leaping at us from the bushes or your wife asking you why the laundry never got done today.
But the problem is, defensiveness is anathema to connection. When we defend ourselves in conversation, typically it’s at the expense of our partner feeling like their needs and emotions matter. We prioritize protecting our ego over caring for our partner and our relationship.
“There are very few scenarios in which we truly need to defend our point of view. Rather, we are mostly driven to do so by the desire to be right,” Earnshaw writes at mbg. “In these moments, we are held within the grips of the ego, which acts as a barrier to authentic communication and connection.”
Defensiveness can have disastrous consequences for a relationship. According to research by psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., defensiveness is one of four communication habits—dubbed the “four horsemen”—tied to an increased likelihood of divorce.
“Getting caught up in explaining why one person's perspective is right and the other person is wrong is one of the most unhealthy communication dynamics that people can enter into in relationships,” Earnshaw explains.
What to do instead.
First thing’s first: Reframe your mindset in these conversations. Instead of trying to come out of the conversation being right or looking like a good person, make your goal to make your partner feel validated and cared for.
This shift in mindset will dramatically improve the outcomes of the conversation, in part because it’ll put your partner at ease, which has the double-bonus of making you feel less activated. It also shifts the dynamic of the conversation from two people fighting to two people finding ways to align.
Start by expressing validation for your partner’s feelings and perspectives, says Earnshaw. She offers these examples of what that might sound like:
- “This makes a lot of sense. If I thought that, I would feel just like you."
- “I get why you are angry."
- “I can hear why you would think that."
- “You make sense to me."
Your second goal should be to find at least one part of their concern that you can take responsibility for, no matter how small. Carroll recommends imagining that any criticism pointed at you has 100 grains, and even if 99 of them are false, there is at least one grain of truth to it that you can acknowledge and apologize for.
Here are some examples of what that might sound like, from Earnshaw:
- “You are right. I didn't clean the dishes."
- “I can take responsibility for the way I spoke to you last night. It was wrong."
- “I did forget to submit the assignment. It should have been on time."
You can always share your own point of view about the situation later when the temperature is lower, and once your partner knows that you’re hearing and understanding their point of view.
Lastly, remember: It’s okay to have upset someone. We all unintentionally irritate or hurt our loved ones from time to time. There’s no need to try to clear your name—and focusing on that is just going to distract from what’s really important in the conversation: repairing the rupture, tending to your partner’s distress, and figuring out how to avoid upsetting each other again in the future.