What is Defensiveness?


While not quite as damaging to a relationship as contempt, defensiveness gives it a run for it’s money as one of the top four negative communication styles Dr. John Gottman has found contributes to divorce.   He calls these the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Let’s start with a good operating definition.  Defensiveness, at its core, is a form of self-preservation that comes out in the form of self-righteousness or being the innocent victim, so to speak.       


What does this look like?


Often this looks like “Oh yeah, well YOU…”  Sometimes if you’re feeling criticized, defensiveness may be your first response.  You may be feeling attacked (whether perceived or real) and wanting to protect yourself by defending your response or well being.  


Enter therapist…


In my experience, defensiveness and criticism often go hand in hand.  One partner perceives criticism and responds with defensiveness which often breeds even more criticism or perhaps a like response with defensiveness.  And the cycle perpetuates.  


Perceived is a really important word here.  Now as a therapist, I rarely if ever initially question one’s perception.  After all, in that moment, perception IS someone’s reality. BUT let’s say your partner was trying to be funny and the joke fell flat or maybe they were distracted and just being careless with words.  They had no intention to be critical or defensive.  


I think it’s important to acknowledge both.  Here’s how it came across to me AND here’s what I choose to believe or here is where I need to check in with my partner and not make an assumption of the intent.


How can we do better?


The best thing we can do when we’re prone to defensiveness is to learn how to take responsibility for our part of the interaction.  Now, this can be hard for those of us who are really motivated by doing what’s “right” or “fair.”  Discipline needs to kick in and set that aside. Taking responsibility doesn’t mean you said or did something wrong or unfair.  It just means that perhaps, without meaning to, a word, look or body language was a trigger to your partner. Or maybe it happened yesterday or last week and your partner has been carrying this around and it all of a sudden came out today in defensiveness.  


So learning how to take ownership for at least part of the problem can be a really emotionally mature thing to do.  This may look like “oh I can see now how it came across that way, I’m really sorry, that wasn’t my intention.”  Or maybe “I’m noticing I’m feeling a desire to explain or defend myself all of a sudden. Do you mind if I take a few minutes to mull over what you just shared with me and then we can continue the conversation?”  You can do this in your own way, but the important part is learning how to not respond to defensiveness with defensiveness (or criticism or any other negative communication styles).  


If you’d like to know more or hear about this in a different way, here’s our video about the 4 Horsemen on YouTube.  


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