understanding defensiveness

shutterstock262553708Relationship expert Psychologists Drs John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman consider defensiveness to be one of the four great warning signs in relationships that predicts separation because without breaking the cycle, couples stay in gridlocked conflict patterns. Exercises in couples therapy involve strategies to remove defensiveness in all conversations.

More often than not, people become defensive when they hear or perceive criticism or attack.

Last month, I had been washing the dishes (we don’t have use of a dishwasher at present). An hour or so later, my husband B was in the kitchen cooking chicken. He looked at the sink with his raised chicken hands and stated, “The sink is full of water, I can’t cook here”.

My retort: “I was doing the dishes! While dealing with a one and two year old!!”

Luckily B didn’t bite back. I realized how defensive I was being – He wasn’t actually attacking me. He was simply stating that the sink was full. I apologized and owned my defensiveness and we got on with cooking dinner.

Defensiveness is the close-mindedness that locks us into gridlock in arguments - the arguments that blow out from something that seems so small, like a sink full of water, into conflict where partners say or do regrettable things.

But the inability to call your own defensiveness is extremely difficult. When we perceive and attack – whether it’s real or imagined – we feel entitled to defend ourselves.

It’s also extremely difficult not to be triggered by someone else’s defensiveness. It can be frustrating to feel unheard and dismissed. Resentment builds when this happens regularly as a default pattern in relationships.

What to do when someone is defensive

Being calm, not reacting or taking their bait will help to prevent getting trapped in gridlock and saying or doing regrettable things down the track.

The first thing to understand is that the other person has perceived an attack. Whether it was intended or not, they feel threatened.


Understand the other person's interpretation of what what’s been said and empathize with that. You can still help them understand what you’re actually trying to say, but they first need compassion to come out of their defensive position.

Take responsibility for any embedded criticism you may have let slip. Say, “Sorry, I know that must have come across as a bit harsh”.

Focus more on your own behaviour rather than theirs.


Don’t take their bait. It will only add fuel to the fire.

Don’t say, “You’re being defensive”. That comes across as criticism and they are likely to become even more defensive.

Don’t lose your cool. Recognize how frustrating is to feel unheard and dismissed and state that that’s how you’re feeling.

How to manage your own defensiveness

It’s very hard to recognize our own defensiveness in the moment, usually because at that point, your heart rate and blood pressure is elevated, making you less able to look objectively at the situation and communicate respectfully.

However, it’s not impossible.

Here are a few things to think about when managing your own defensiveness.

Take a moment to understand what’s really going on for you or why your feel triggered. When B mentioned the sink was full, my defenses came out because I had great intention that day to get as much domestic stuff done as I could and it was important to me that he thought I had done a good job of it.

Identify your insecurities. Is this a sore point that has aggravated feelings of inadequacy? I know I am no domestic goddess and I have accepted that. I never feel judged but deep down there are feelings of inadequacy as a homemaker, so I am hypersensitive to feeling criticized for that.

Call it for what it is and apologize. I was able to say, “whoa, sorry, babe. I just got really defensive there, didn’t I?! Yeah sure, I’ll empty the sink for you”.

We have to remember that all communication is two-way. There are opportunities at every point for each person to take responsibility for their own actions and to gently assist the other in theirs.

I deal with this everyday at my Gladesville practice, helping couples break that cycle. It's just as easy as it is to empty that sink of water!

Consult with me! You can reach me at 0416 561 769 or by the contact page.

© Elizabeth Neal 2016
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