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.