Is it just us or does the statement, “Don’t get so defensive!” seem to have the same effect as when someone tells you, “Just try to relax!”

In other words, it makes you feel the opposite of what’s intended – more defensive, less relaxed.

Unfortunately, defensiveness can be a catalyst for negative communication patterns. It can make it hard to talk through issues and be open, authentic, and vulnerable with each other.

Sometimes our defensiveness is our own doing, and sometimes it’s just a natural response to protect ourselves if we’re feeling attacked or exposed. And that’s why if we want to decrease defensiveness, it’s not just one person that needs to put in the effort – it’s a two-way street.

Lane 1: Taking a look at ourselves
Often, we react defensively before we can even register why. It makes sense – we want to armor ourselves when we’re feeling vulnerable. Take a minute to think about the times you’ve had a strong emotional reaction to something your partner said or did. Was it related to an insecurity you have? Something you’re feeling guilty about? Ashamed? Hurt or angry? It can be liberating to simply acknowledge the fact that yep, I’m human and I feel really insecure/guilty/angry, etc. about _____. Sharing this with your partner increases connection and gives them insight they may not have had before. But this doesn’t mean you’re never going to to react defensively – it’s still going to happen. Being aware of what triggers you allows you to pause in the moment, take a deep breath, and say, “I’m sorry I just snapped at you. I feel insecure about ____.”

Lane 2: Making the effort for our partner
On the other side of road is the environment we create for our partner – is it safe and non-judgmental or do they feel like they might be attacked? Just as lowering our defenses and acknowledging our triggers can take a conscious effort, so does taking steps to make our partner feel safe and respected. This might mean being very mindful of your tone or how you’re bringing up a topic with them. What you say matters, but so does how you say it. It might also mean resisting the urge to interrupt or reply with a counterpoint or criticism. Interestingly, our ability to do these things also requires us to feel safe and respected in our own right.

The reality is, we’re in both lanes simultaneously, which can seem like… a lot. But there is comfort in knowing that you’re both making a genuine effort for each other and your relationship. You’re not walking this street alone.

6 Comments

  • Gerry Blakeman says:

    This is so helpful and true! Once you can take that responsibility and talk about the feelings/insecurities – our humanness wants to be close. Keep working at this, it’s never over, in my mind!! We’ve been married for 52 years and still get trapped.

  • Carol says:

    Thank you for the post. My ex-husband was critical of how I went about daily chores, so I tend to overreact if my now-husband asks an honest question about something I’m doing. The question may be in my best interest (“Do you want the heat that high on the fish?”), but I will hear that as, “You don’t know how to cook fish, do you?” Thank you for reminding me to consider the source and intention behind the question so that I don’t get defensive in the first place.

    • Margaret Parker says:

      Very pertinent to us at the moment. My husband can get quite excitable when explaining a point and I close up because I don’t want to argue. I react to the tone of his voice. He says he is just trying to explain a point. We both need to address this issue somehow.

  • Gina says:

    Yes, a very good topic. I wanted to talk about my children, but as soon as he starts talking, I feel like I’m not a good parent. Or anytime he starts a sentence with a “WHY”.

  • Jessica says:

    I want to thank you for this post, this was very insightful and rather useful.
    Reminds me of the peppered eggs scenario from Love and Respect.

  • Gerald Polmateer says:

    Proverbs 12:1, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. ” Who wants to be thought of as stupid? The more a person uses restraint in defending themselves and seeks to understand, the easier it becomes to be humble and the more rewarding relationships are. If we seek to defend ourselves then in essence we are saying we have no need to be taught and grow.

Leave a Reply