Chronic defensiveness in a relationship can turn it into a nasty battleground.
It’s one of the top toxic pollutant that poisons a happy relationship.
Dr Gottman defines defensiveness in a relationship as, “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.”
It’s where someone keeps protesting their innocence all the time and dodges any attempts at conflict resolution with a sky high defensive wall of defensiveness.
It’s normal for us to become defensive when we are actually being criticized, but the problem I’m talking about here is that the defensive partner isn’t being critized. It might be a complaint about their behaviour.
Maybe you’re the one in your relationship that uses chronic defensiveness everytime an argument comes along.
Maybe it’s your partner that puts up huge roadblocks to intimacy by throwing defensiveness at you everytime. They can react angrily or hurt or throw self pity at you instead.
Perhaps they say things to you like this;
“I haven’t had time to take care of that!”
“It wasn’t even my fault because …”
“I try so hard…”
“I can’t change the past…”
“You’re not my father/mother!”
It’s a clever way of deflecting responsibility. You’re telling your partner when they raise something with you that upsets them, “the problem isn’t me, it’s you.”
The problem doesn’t get resolved and the conflict escalates further.
Being defensive with your lover invalidates, diminishes or suppresses their emotions and thoughts. When a defensive person feels like they’re under attack they focus on protecting their reputation or honour when what they’re really doing is protecting a very fragile sense of self that’s full of negative feelings of self doubt.
Often defensive types see their partner as attacking them when they’re actually not being critisized at all. This is especially true if it’s something is a trigger of ours- whether from a past relationship or our childhood.
Defensive folk can sometimes be terrified of true intimacy and let it all bottle up inside themselves. Later they can react in a passive aggressive way to keep others at a safe distance. They can withold or say they will not co-operate or shut down.
If it is hard for all us to listen to feedback from our partner and these are skills we can all work on.
From a psychotherapy point of view, defensive people can unconsciously be very attached to the feeling of being critisized and unconsciously go searching for that feeling. This can be a lingering negative effect of how they felt as a worthless as a child. This feeling of being bad or in the wrong is a very familiar feeling for defensive people. There’s an unconscious pull towards feeling this way because it’s what they were used to when much younger. It feels comfortable and familiar and by default they can fall back into it.
“Defenders adeptly avoid the issue being discussed by drawn-out attempts to explain their behaviors, or by justifying themselves, presenting a case that they are innocent, or analyzing how they got the way they are. Here are some examples: “I talk too much because my father never gave me any attention.” Or, “I had too much to drink because I’m under a lot of stress.” Or, “If you worked as hard as I do, you’d be crabby too.” Acting indignant is another common defense: “How could you ever think I’d do such a thing?”
Becoming defensive denotes insecurity about yourself and your position. The intensity of your reaction may be an indicator of how truthfully your partner is describing you and your behaviors. The more you protest, the more you give yourself away.
Often the defender defends even when her partner’s judgments about her are unjustified. Almost any accusation makes her defensive because she resonates with feeling criticized or condemned. The accusations may represent how she really feels about herself and how, through the inner conscience or inner critic, she “hits herself up” with accusations of inadequacy and incompetence. For example, if her partner accuses her of handling a situation inadequately, even though she knows she did a good job, she may end up feeling inadequate because she used her partner’s criticism—unjustified though it might be—to soak up feelings of being judged and disapproved of.”
Although a lot of people don’t realise they are defensive, it is possible to become aware of and change.
It is possible to calm down that inner critic that keeps us in perpetual defensiveness. We can stop acting out in our relationship the inner fights between our own inner critic and our own inner passive side.
We can stop taking everything so personally or learn from constructive criticism. If it’s rubbish feedback from a co-worker or someone else then we can laugh it off and not be easily offended.
Learning to listen in a new way and self soothe when you feel yourself falling back into a defensive place can help.
Focussing on our individual defensive techniques can help us to disarm them and work out the cause of the reaction. From there a couple can move forward together to lay down their weapons and change their reactions whenever conflict arises.
In the next blog I’ll speak more about how to overcome defensiveness in a relationship.