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Here's What To Do If Your Partner Always Gets Defensive

October 19, 2019

Kim was sick with the flu, and Jason offered to go to the local co-op and get her some nice soup.

"I'd love that," she said. "But most of all, I'd love some fresh orange juice."

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"Your body probably needs the vitamin C. I'll get that too," he said as he took off on his bike for the store a few blocks away.

A few minutes later, he returned and handed her the soup.

"Thanks, Jason," she said. "But what I really want is the orange juice."

Jason's smile turned into a frown, and then he looked angry. "Well, I'm sorry," he said, angrily. "I forgot. Look, it's just never enough for you, is it?"

Kim left the interaction feeling frustrated and disappointed, while Jason felt unfairly criticized and unappreciated. What if he had said, "I'm sorry; I totally forgot. Should I go back and get some? I know you wanted that most." Imagine how different they would have both felt, whether or not he ended up going back. But Jason's knee-jerk defensiveness created a cloud that hung over the two of them for the rest of the day.

In my work as a marriage counselor and love coach, I have heard some version of this story thousands of times. I would argue that defensiveness is one of the biggest troublemakers in relationships, as at least a quarter of the work I do with couples is to help them learn to hear one another instead of simply responding. Many of us struggle with being open to complaints, protests, or concerns, quick to shield ourselves with the armor of defensiveness rather than address the issue at hand.

What causes defensiveness.

We all have protective mechanisms, and these mechanisms are necessary for our survival. When they are underdeveloped, we exhibit poor boundaries and accept all complaints as our fault or responsibility. Conversely, when they are overly developed, we constantly try to shield ourselves from a perceived attack, even if one is not present (such as in the example with Jason). Both of these extremes can harm our relationships.

Defensiveness shuts down communication, buries goodwill, and turns a simple human exchange (like forgetting the orange juice) into a potentially heavy issue between people that seldom gets discussed but gets acted out through behaviors like withdrawing, withholding, and resenting.

Additionally, defensiveness requires a lot of energy to maintain. Although it's meant to minimize our feelings of shame, it actually deepens them. Moreover, defensive behavior from one partner will likely lead the other partner to shut down emotionally. While that might feel good in the short run, these emotions will eventually emerge, either in explosions of rage or acts of passive revenge, such as sharp-edged teasing, couched criticisms, or the withholding of love, sex, and expressions of appreciation.

So why do we do it? What makes some people so sensitive as to perceive criticism and attack where there is none, while others can respond with open curiosity when someone criticizes them?

Inborn temperament is involved—some people are simply born with thinner skin than others. Childhood history is also another factor that can determine your reaction style and intensity. Your childhood history deeply informs how you respond to criticism. If family members or other important adults shamed, belittled, or punished you harshly when you were a child, as an adult you still may feel the need to try to protect yourself whenever someone seems angry with you. This is an unconscious, automatic response to a perceived danger.

We are all wired to protect ourselves with a fight, flight, or freeze response. If a cougar attacks us, we adopt one of those stress responses. As a child, if an angry parent says to us, "You forgot to empty the garbage; you're hopeless," it can feel almost as distressful and dangerous as an attack from a cougar. Then, as adults, we may react to even a tiny criticism by instinctively freezing—that is, we do whatever we can to keep the complainer from continuing to express negative comments. When your partner says, "Hey, you forgot the orange juice," or, "I was upset you told your friends we had a fight," these statements aren't actually sources of danger. But to our emotional brain, they may feel like danger, and we instantly act to try to protect ourselves.

How to talk to someone who always gets defensive.

Whether these responses are innate or a part of our personalities, your defensive behaviors are not character flaws—they're simply human responses. That said, defensiveness can cause a lot of trouble. But it can be overcome.

I've developed a list of strategies to help you combat defensiveness in your relationship and help both you and your partner feel more secure

Below are some tips for dealing with defensive behavior in your partner:

  1. Talk about issues in a non-blaming way when you're not upset. For example, most criticisms disguise a desire, so try to speak about what you want rather than what's wrong. You might say, "I miss hearing about your day," not "You never tell me what's going on at work anymore."
  2. When you're not in the middle of an argument, ask your partner how they would prefer to receive complaints.
  3. Understand the message you're giving with your own body language. You may feel neutral, but your nonverbal communication can suggest you're blaming.
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Below are some tips for the person who tends to be more defensive:

  1. Own it. If your partner says, "Hey, you forgot the orange juice," observe your reaction. If your reaction is to criticize back, take a breath instead and say, "Hey, fair enough, but I am feeling reactive. Give me a moment to manage that and I'll respond." Then take some deep breaths and pause before you say anything.
  2. Practice self-soothing. Get to know how it feels when you're feeling attacked in your body. When you recognize the intake of breath, the tightening of muscles, and the immediate flurry of excuses in your head, pause. Go for a short walk, take deep breaths, and tell yourself this is an old protective strategy—and you don't need it.
  3. Look for a tiny grain of truth in what your partner is saying and practice acknowledging it while reminding yourself that this is a human condition, not a character flaw.

It's not easy to break deep habits by force of will. It takes time for new patterns to form. If you try your best for a while and still can't talk without fighting, a good therapist can help. A skilled couples' therapist can foster a safe space that allows both of you to gently look at the hurt behind your walls and defenses. With the help of a therapist, you and your partner can create new connections for healing that will continue long after your work in therapy is done.

Relationships are hard, and doubly so when defensive behavior makes it impossible to discuss issues. I've published over 80 articles on relationships, four of which were specifically about defensive behavior, and I received a much greater response to those four articles in part because this behavior can be so frustrating and confusing.

Whether you decide to make some changes at home or seek the help of a therapist in dealing with this issue, it's important to take action and realize that defensiveness is not a permanent, immutable condition; it's a learned behavior that can be unlearned with work, commitment, and support.

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Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
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.