“My partner is too defensive” is a common complaint I hear as a couples therapist.
Of course, we are all wired to protect ourselves — so most of us get defensive at least sometimes. But if you find that either you or your partner is always on guard, waiting on the front-lines to pounce into a defensive mode of communicating, it can be deeply harmful to the relationship.
Here are 12 truths about defensiveness — what it is and why it happens — that can help us better understand this self-protecting impulse (and especially when it gets precarious).
In understanding defensiveness better, we can learn to dismantle it as a habit, and begin engaging more compassionately and openly in our relationships.
1. There are several ways to define the term defensive.
My favorite is by author Sharon Ellison: to be defensive is to react with “a war mentality to a non-war issue.” In other words, defensiveness is an impulsive and reactive mode of responding to a situation or conversation. Rather than listening with an open heart, we respond with our metaphorical shields up and weapons drawn.
2. All relationships experience hiccups now and again.
Be they with a lover, a child, your mother or a co-worker, all relationships will inevitably suffer at some points from a breakdown in communication. Your husband forgets to pass along a message, your wife forgets to pick up milk at the store, or your partner says something that inadvertently hurts your feelings.
Getting defensive in response to disruptions like these in your relationship is natural. But it’s all about your recovery time: holding onto a defensive attitude is a decidedly different way of approaching your relationship than recognizing that you’re being defensive and letting it go.
3. When issues come up, someone needs to protest.
If your partner forgets to call, you need to express how you feel. Saying, “I’m upset you didn’t call when you said you would” is not defensive, but open and honest. It gives your partner the benefit of the doubt, allowing, in the best of circumstances, for he/she to repair the situation with a simple, “I’m sorry. How can I make this situation better?” or “What would you prefer I do next time?”
4. Conflict allows for reconnection (and more).
The two steps of an “ideal conflict” that I explain about — protest and repair — also build faith in the resiliency of the relationship. Working through conflicts explicitly and openly assure both partners that they can trust each other; they can be honest and acknowledge that any relationship is a work in progress, not fixed or defined on just one person’s terms.
The “conflict cycle” goes like this: connect, rupture, protest, repair and reconnect. Remember, when it comes time to protest, be sure your complaint is stated considerately enough not to punish or shame your loved one.
5. Not speaking up is dangerous.
Bottom line: if we don’t learn how to deal with our grievances head-on, inevitably we deal with them indirectly, most often in more toxic forms: by teasing or making snide comments, holding grudges, or by growing more indifferent to our partner over time.
Of course, it’s difficult to give and receive healthy criticism if we’re clinging to a defensive attitude. If you feel yourself become defensive, try to see if you can simply acknowledge it, and work through the conflict as honestly and generously as possible. If your partner is giving you criticism that is making you feel defensive, can you express why?
6. Our brains are wired for connection.
In the first stage of love, when we’re infatuated by the freshness and excitement of new romance, we anticipate the best in our new partner. And we’re rewarded because each thing they say and do activates the connection center of our brain. We view their actions, intentions, and language through the lens of our positive vision. As the chemistry of the “honeymoon phase” shifts, the second kind of circuitry emerges, one that is about sustainable connection.
That said, it turns out that we’re wired for self-protection as well. So in times of defensiveness, see if you can tap into our naturally coexistent desire to connect. Remember the enduring connection from that first stage of love, and try to access the feelings that first made you predisposed toward generosity and understanding at the outset of your relationship.