Articles by Alex Ryder, Break ups, Communication, Conflict, Couple's counselling, Couples, defensiveness, Listen

Why do I get so defensive?

How to recognise and reverse the harmful effects of defensiveness in your communication.

You might have read an article I wrote recently on how to help your partner when they are being defensive. Defensiveness is a human trait that shows up in all intimate relationships. This article is about what you can do if you find yourself getting defensive.

Defensiveness is easy to recognise in your partner, but it takes a great deal of emotional intelligence to recognise defensiveness in yourself. If you are feeling constantly criticised in your relationship or you feel inferior to your partner, then it is likely that defensiveness is showing up for you.

Defensiveness protects you from feeling uncomfortable feelings, and it is accompanied by an automatic fight, flight or freeze response which happens very quickly. So not only can it be difficult to recognise it, dealing with it can be a little uncomfortable.

Six antidotes for your own defensiveness

1. Recognise it

Defensiveness is often an automatic response. Key signs you’re being defensive include:

  • You’ve interrupted your partner.
  • You’ve stopped listening and a ready to respond.
  • You’ve started your response with the word “but”.

2. Breath

Taking a conscious breath will help you re-engage your parasympathetic nervous system and allow you to think more clearly, meaning you can analyse the situation rather than simply reacting.

3. Stop and Listen

When defensiveness shows up it means you have stopped listening to your partner. This causes communication breakdown. Try to put your reactive thoughts aside and listen with curiosity to your partner. Listening with curiosity will keep you out of defensiveness.

4. Ask for a time-out

Allowing time to calm down will also help settle your fight, flight or freeze response. You can then return to the conversation in a calm and open manner.

5. Find something to agree with

There is always something you can agree with and doing so will dramatically alter the outcome of the conversation. At the very least you can acknowledge what your partner is feeling. You mightn’t agree with the reason they feel that way, but the feeling is real for them.

6. Take responsibility

The reason defensiveness is so damaging to relationships is because it effectively shifts blame back onto your partner. By accepting responsibility for your part in the conversation/issue, as small as it might be, you can hose down (rather than fuel) the cycle of defensiveness. You give your partner a break.

For example:

“I apologise for my tone of voice”. FULL STOP. Any comment that follows that is likely to invalidate the accountability you are trying to take, and shift responsibility back to your partner. Try taking responsibility without justifying your behaviour.

We all have the capacity to have a difficult conversation, but it’s just about impossible when you are in a defensive state. To avoid communication breakdown, try to focus on strategies 1-3 in particular.  

If you do nothing more than stay present and listen to your partner, you will dramatically reduce the harmful effects of defensiveness in your relationship.

Our histories play a significant role in our defensive behaviour and for this reason it can be extremely difficult for you to accurately perceive whether your defensive response is justified or not. Your partner’s criticisms and confrontations will exacerbate your defensive response, and might well justify your being defensive. Unfortunately, though, justified or not, defensiveness will not get you anywhere in an intimate relationship.

No one deserves to feel attacked or constantly criticised in a relationship. And no one deserves to have to tippy-toe around a defensive person. A couples therapist can help you and your partner out of these poor patterns of communication, and help you enjoy interacting again.

Call us today on 02 8968 9397 to discuss an appointment.

About Alex

Alex is an accessible and compassionate therapist.  His clients appreciate that Alex listens with the intention of genuinely understanding them.  He’s lovely with adolescents, who seem to warm to him

immediately, and he creates a space in sessions for any or all participants to have their say and feel heard.

Alex’s particular strengths are in the area of working with couples and he has extensive experience and training in this area.  He is both Gottman and Systemically trained and draws on practical ideas that clients can immediately make use of to enhance their relationships.

Alex comes to Sydney Couple and Family Therapy Specialists from backgrounds as a Lifeline Crisis Line Counsellor and Trainer and Therapist at the highly-respected Jansen Newman Institute.  He has supported individuals and couples through trauma, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and adolescent struggles.

Alex has helped many people through intensely frightening and painful life events – and to a place where they have the skills and confidence to carry themselves forward.

Alex is married with a young family and therefore easily relates to the stress and struggles that many couples and young families face today.

“It takes a lot of courage to share a moment of crisis with someone you don’t yet know.  Even more so, to entrust your intimate relationship over to them.

I have been in the fortunate position to be trusted with that responsibility many times and have helped people – through their own bravery, honesty and effort – to transcend their suffering and improve their key relationships.”

Alex also runs the pre-marriage counselling course at the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists

Qualifications and Professional Membership

Alex holds a Masters of Counselling and Psychotherapy from Jansen Newman Institute Sydney, and a Bachelor degree from the University of Sydney.  Alex also holds a Gottman training certificate.

He is a member of the Australian Association of Family Therapy, the Counsellors and Psychotherapist Association of Australia, and the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia.

Why see a Couples Counselor?

Are you wondering if couples counselling is for you? In this interview Alex Ryder answers common questions we hear from people who want to understand more about this process.

And remember, if you are a new client you can book a free 15 minute telephone session with Alex.

“We really like your approach. The other couples counsellor we saw left us stuck in negativity.  Right from the start we felt hopeful with you.  Your positive approach helped us out of the slump, so we could address the real issues.” – Murry (36) married to Tasha (39); One Child (3) – Clients who saw Alex Ryder for Relationship counselling.

“I’ve wanted to refer you to so many people.  Obviously I haven’t given the circumstances, but we are huge fans and are so grateful for your help.” – Tom (49) married to Sarah (43). Two children; 15 & 13 – Clients who saw Alex Ryder for Relationship counselling following an affair.

“I think we told you in our first session that you were the last couples therapist we were going to try. Everything was on the line.  So thank you for… well everything.” – James (55) married to Philippa (53) – Clients who saw Alex Ryder for Relationship Counselling

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