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How Defensiveness Hurts Your Relationship

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How Defensiveness Hurts Your Relationship

Laura Brown


We’ve all been there. That moment when someone says something that immediately gets your back up. You’re left with the instinctive feeling of being under attack, and the impulse is to defend. And in this defence of yourself, you might notice yourself getting heated and saying something to criticize or attack back. And suddenly you find yourself in heated conflict, unsure of how you got here and what to do next.

If you’ve noticed defensiveness coming up for you in your relationships, stay tuned to learn how to make sense of defensiveness, and what can potentially be done about it in your relationships.

Hi everyone, I’m Laura Brown from Heart & Oak Therapy, supporting better, brighter lives. We’re therapists who do regular videos on mental wellness, and give you practical ideas and tips to make your life happier and more fulfilling – so hit the subscribe button to keep in the loop!

First and foremost, you might be wondering, what is defensiveness? Well, it’s simply the attempt to defend yourself against a perceived attack or threat. Defensiveness is often talked about as a problematic way to deal with conflict in relationships because of what that attempt to defend sounds and looks like. Most often when we refer to defensiveness, we are speaking to the tendency to attack or criticize back or shut down the conversation altogether. Responding with defensiveness can be a problem when it gets in the way of hearing the true intention behind the message and amplifying the misunderstanding or conflict by hurting the other person back. Who may then respond with defensiveness to your message, snowballing things until you find yourself in a nasty mess and unsure of how to resolve it.

Defensiveness can be unique to each person, and can be influenced by a whole host of factors. How we interpret that message can be influenced by the how the other person packages that message – the tone, the choice of words, body language, and the environment they choose to deliver that message in. For example, you may attribute greater meaning that the words conveyed when someone uses an aggressive tone of voice, is standing over you, and is doing so in front of a crowd of people. Someone could say the exact same words using a softer tone, with open body language, and in private, that leaves you with an entirely different interpretation of the message.

This goes to show that we use a whole host of intel to interpret messages, which is why it is so important to consider the full context of when and how defensiveness comes up for you.

Beyond how the other person delivers this message, the way in which you interpret it can also be influenced by what is happening for you presently. Things like your present mood, your energy levels, the amount of sleep you have, and what you’re focused on can all contribute to how you interpret what someone is saying to you. 

For example, I am 100% guilty of getting extremely hangry at times. You’ve heard this concept before – the brutal reality that some people experience when their blood sugar drops and their left in a terrible state of anger and hunger. When I forget to eat and find myself feeling this way, it is incredibly hard for me NOT to get defensive. Even though his intention behind a message may be one of sincere care and concern, and is delivered in a way that clearly suggests this intention, I can hear it as an attack. And given the state I’m in, it’s likely for me to be pretty nasty in response to this. Honestly, some of our worst fights have been in large part because of my unbridled hanger.

In addition to how your feeling in the present moment, how and what someone says to you can also be perceived as an attack depending on the meaning you make what is said. Perhaps it reminds you of something you have felt criticized for in the past, by the person giving the message or someone else entirely. Or it could touch on something that you feel sensitive about, and that you could potentially address in a constructive way to heal or work through that sensitivity.

I’m going to use a really silly example from my own relationship to highlight a sensitivity that I noticed coming up when Will has made comments about me burping. Now, I want to make one thing clear, Will DESPISES burping, he thinks it’s disgusting – even more disgusting than farting. And I have a love for fizzy drinks, which can lead to unintentional burping on my part. This is now even more problematic because I’m pregnant and have a harder time controlling it. 

In addition to this, I’ve also become more sensitive as to whether or not Will finds me as attractive because my body is changing so much. In no way has Will done anything to contribute to this sensitivity, and I truly didn’t even realize this was an issue for me until Will commented one night on my burping. Usually when he would call out how gross he finds it, I would tease him back or flippantly say sorry, and then let it go. We have a pretty open relationship where we don’t tend to take offense when we call out the gross things the other one does. 

But the other night I perceived it as criticism and became super defensive in response, arguing that he was incredibly mean and rude for saying anything given my pregnant condition. He was left a bit flabbergasted and responded with a bit of defensiveness back. And before we knew it, we had a big ol misunderstanding on our hands. It took me taking a step back and questioning why I was so offended by what he had said that I came to realize my sensitivity. In expressing the real reason for why I was offended by him, Will expressed that his comment in no way reflected his level of attraction or love for me. 

So, what can be done about defensiveness? One of the best ways to shift your relationship with defensiveness is to become aware of when and how it happens for you. First, make sense of it for yourself, and in that noticing you can hold that feeling while also assessing its validity.

Whenever defensiveness comes up for you, you have an opportunity to determine whether or not the person delivering the message truly intended to criticize or attack you. You can ask yourself, why did I interpret this as an attack or why do I feel offended? What did the other person say or do that had me responding with this feeling? In finding the answers to these questions you can then inform the person of your interpretation. This can be done without a critique of the person, but rather a clear, direct acknowledgment of why and how you came to feel the way that you did.

Pulling from the burp example, instead of criticizing Will for what he said, I could have responded by saying “When you said my burping was disgusting, I was hurt because it made me think you don’t find me attractive”

Of course, this is an ideal response, and one that may not arise in the very moment that the conversation is happening. However, even having this type of conversation well after the fact is useful because it offers you an opportunity to reflect, be curious, and be vulnerable in a way that can lead to greater understanding and trust between you two. It also requires a sense of emotional safety from your partner to provide you with the space to be truly vulnerable in this way.

When you take steps to become aware of defensiveness, it opens you up to hearing the message in the way it was intended to be heard. By alerting you to the reasons why you do not initially interpret the message in this way, it offers you and your partner an opportunity to look at how you communicate, and what could be done differently to avoid misunderstandings in the future. It also gives you space to really consider how the two of you want to treat one another when things are going well, as well as when conflict and misunderstandings develop.

And now, turning it over to you, the Heart and Oak community. What has your experience been with defensiveness? What have you done to respond differently, even when you feel under attack of criticized? Share in the comment section below!

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Take care until next time, and keep doing the things that help you live a better, brighter life!