How Being Defensive is Hurting Your Marriage

How Being Defensive is Hurting Your Marriage - #staymarried“It’s so hard to be around them sometimes. They get so defensive if I say anything at all.”

I was complaining to Tony, my new boyfriend at the time, about a couple of people I was working with.

“Yeah,” he said innocently, “You can be pretty defensive, too.”

Cue internal outrage… What!?!? Did he just tell me that I’m defensive? I AM NOT DEFENSIVE! Wait… am I? Wow, I am falling in love with this guy and I think he feels the same way about me AND he thinks I’m defensive… Maybe I am. How did I not know this about myself?…

The subject died. I had nothing to say after he made his very nonchalant observation. I mean, I wasn’t going to try to get into a fight with him about me being defensive… that would have only proven him right.

I swallowed his words and tried to be much more thoughtful about the way I responded to situations and comments that frustrated me. I think he’s right; I am naturally defensive. But, I mean, who isn’t? Doesn’t everyone want the chance to defend themselves when they feel like they are being insulted, misunderstood, or attacked? It seems so automatic that there isn’t anything I can do about it.

What is your ADS?

It seems automatic because defensiveness in some ways is automatic. In fact, Dr. Steven Stosny, an expert in anger and relationship problems, refers to defensiveness in relationships as a hypersensitive Automatic Defense System (ADS). He says that it is much more reactionary than it is intentional. In a way, you can’t help it and neither can I.

Your level of defensiveness and the time it takes for you to go from being calm to being irate often comes from a pattern in the way you and your partner communicate. It is likely that you have built up triggers over time. It could be in the way he sighs that causes you to automatically have tension in your neck and shoulders. It could be the look she gives you as you’re disciplining the kids that can cause a quick defensive frustration. Maybe you’re expecting to hear criticism or be attacked for the way you’re doing something.

How Being Defensive is Hurting Your Marriage - #staymarriedBeing Defensive Doesn’t Help

We become defensive when we feel unsafe, unloved, and unsupported. Sometimes our triggers have very little to do with our partner and much more to do with the things that made us feel unsafe, unsupported, or unloved as children. Wherever it comes from, once we realize we are in a habit of being defensive, it’s important to realize that this behavior is not helping make your relationship stronger. Defensive behavior communicates that you and your partner are at odds instead of on the same team working together. Typically, being defensive is a way to deflect responsibility and instead place blame.

Defensiveness is so damaging that Dr. John Gottman has named it as one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” when it comes to predicting divorce. But, if it is a mostly automatic reaction as we’ve already said, what can be done about it?

When you’re feeling defensive, call it out

When you recognize that you are feeling defensive, stop and say something about it. I have said, after taking a deep breath, “I think I’m feeling defensive. I think it’s because I feel misunderstood (or criticised). Can you give me a minute?” Just saying it out loud can have a huge effect in calming your ADS. Remind yourself that you and your spouse are on the same team and working together is the goal.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Gottman says that “behind every complaint is a deep personal longing.” Rather than taking your spouse’s words as a personal affront, consider it an opportunity to learn more about how they are feeling and how you can show them love. When I approached Tony with my frustrations over all the housework, he could have thrown up his hands and said, “That’s not my fault. I never said you had to do all of those things.” Instead, my complaint was met with understanding and love. You can see our full email exchange here.

When your partner is defensive, be supportive

Now, if your partner is the one acting defensively, calling it out is not helpful. Telling someone, “You’re being defensive,” will probably make the situation worse. Remember that if they are being defensive, it may be because they are feeling attacked and think they need to protect themselves. Rather than attacking further by telling them they are being defensive, think for a moment about what you may have done or said that could have caused this reaction. Again, the goal is to be on the same team and it takes work to get there.

Instead of further attacking, you could say, “Honey, I love you. I don’t mean to sound critical/harsh/insensitive (or make you feel attacked). I do want to be able to talk about this (whatever “it” is) without being completely at odds with each other. How are you feeling right now? What can I do to make this better?”

Teammates on the Same Team

Tony and I talk a lot about having a team mindset. It’s not always easy or automatic. Our “Think Like a Team” chart that we originally introduced in a post called “Same Team” can be really helpful in coming up with better language for more productive fights. (Hint: Pin this image so you can come back to it later.)

How to Think Like a Team - a #staymarried blog for couples

People change when they want to

Above all, when it comes to defensiveness or any other form of unhealthy communication, it’s vital to remember this: People change when they want to, not when we want them to. Creating a supportive, loving, and safe environment within your marriage can do wonders in minimizing or even eliminating defensiveness. Let’s take responsibility for our own defensiveness, work to be on the same team, and #staymarried.

Tony and Michelle Peterson #staymarriedYou are reading How Being Defensive is Hurting Your Marriage, a #staymarried blog. If you liked this, you may also enjoy Sometimes My Wife Complains and Same Team. If you think these could benefit someone else’s marriage, please consider sharing. Also, don’t forget to Pin the Think Like a Team diagram so you can come back to it later.

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Thanks for stopping by!

~ Michelle


4 thoughts on “How Being Defensive is Hurting Your Marriage

  1. Thanks so much for writing about this subject. I think you are absolutely right about being defensive in marriage. Man, I tell you what, being defensive has lead to worse arguments that ended without resolve. It has put me in a position to say things to my husband that I wouldn’t have normally said. I really like that you say that when you feel defensive, you should stop and say something about it. That is a really great idea to not only recognize your attitude, but to share that with your spouse so that they know what is going on with you. Perfect advice. Thanks so much.

    1. Oh Keelie! I am so glad you found it helpful. One of my biggest problems is that I shut down really quickly – that’s my defense mechanism of choice. I am really trying to practice at least saying to Tony that I’m irritated, or feeling defensive, or anxious… even if I’m not yet ready to have a conversation about it. It has helped us both remember that we want to be on the same team 🙂

  2. I’ve been randomly coming across your blogs on Pinterest for the past two weeks. I’m not married but I’m certainly headed in that direction with my boyfriend. He and I had just got into a HUGE argument last week. I thought it was over but we managed to forgive each other for our wrongs and commit to working on communicating better. That’s when I found your blogs… I just shared this one with him tonight. It was so insightful. I believe in prevention… I want to deal with unhealthy communication now before I say I do. I know that we will not see eye to eye on everything thing and that there will be other arguments… but knowing how to deal with it on this side of marriage will put me in a much better position to deal with different things that come up after marriage. So thank you so much for taking the time out to write such an insightful blog. I love it!!!

    1. Hey Jenia! It’s never to soon to figure out better communication habits. So excited for you and your boyfriend to be putting in the effort and work on this side of things. Kudos!

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