Articles by Alex Ryder, Break ups, Couple's counselling

Why is my partner so defensive?

5 ways to deal with defensiveness in your relationship.

Does this sound familar to you?

Leaving the room and shouting back… “You’re such a hypocrite. That’s exactly what you do.”

Arms folded and gaze averted… “I’ve tried that already. It doesn’t work.”

Finger pointed at you… “Don’t tell me what to do.”

If you’re hearing comments like this on a regular basis it is likely your partner is feeling defensive. When you are around a defensive person it can feel like you are walking on eggshells not wanting to say the wrong thing and spark a fight. Defensiveness can feel like an attack that, quite aggressively, shifts the blame back on to you. And can ultimately be extremely frustrating, because you don’t feel heard and nothing gets resolved.

So why do people get defensive?

We get defensive when we perceive a threat (real or imagined). The threat induces a biochemical response that activates our flight, fight or freeze mechanisms. The reason for this response is it helps us to avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings. Defensiveness kicks in to protect us from things like guilt, shame, belittlement, hurt, fear.

Defensiveness can be more extreme for people who find it difficult to take responsibility, are insecure, or narcissistic. However, it is a human trait and it shows up in most relationships. It becomes a problem when it keeps showing up in communication, leaving the other person feeling unheard and misunderstood.

Here’s what you can do if your partner is being defensive.

1. Reduce the threat

Remember defensiveness occurs when your partner perceives a threat. You can reduce the perceived threat by:

  • Removing criticisms – criticism is the number one cause of defensiveness. It is okay to complain or ask for behaviours to change, but when you criticise your partner’s character then you can expect a defensive response. Learn the difference here.
  • Checking your body language – your partner will be more defensive when they sense aggressive and imposing body language or tone of voice. Could you soften your non-verbal communication by sitting down and lowering your voice?
  • Use humour – humour (especially self-deprecating humour) can disarm when someone is defensive or guarded.
  • Be aware of who else is listening – social settings increase perceived threats for most people. If you have something difficult to say, then say it in private.

2. Foster respect

Blame, dogmatism, contempt, superiority, manipulation and withholding information all elicit defensive responses from others. However, treating your partner with respect helps disarm a defensive response. Read more on the importance of respect here.

3. Establish a playing field

Discuss with your partner how you can bring up difficult topics so they will hear you better. Have this discussion in advance – before you have something difficult to bring up.

4. Allow time and space

The defensive response is often associated with an inability to think clearly and problem-solve. Help your partner by giving them time and space to process and think about what they want to say.

5. You can always be a good listener

No matter the intensity of the defensive response, remembering that you can always be a good listener is a great way to stay calm, and help your partner deal with what they’re feeling.

Defensiveness, like criticism, can become a bad habit. Sometimes people struggle to break the habit because they are afraid – afraid of talking about their feelings because they will be judged, even afraid their partner wants to leave them. Our histories also play a large part in defensive behaviour. For these reasons, defensiveness can be extremely difficult to navigate, and if it is common place in your relationship, couples therapy can be a good way to help you and your partner steer out of the mine field of defensiveness.

And what if you are feeling defensive, rather than your partner? Attacked and criticised, unable to put a foot right? You can read more about how to manage criticism in your relationship here and keep an eye out for my follow up article that will give you tips on how to manage your own defensiveness in your relationship.

Call us today on 02 8968 9397 to discuss an appointment and let us help you deal with this and other relationship concerns.

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