All human beings have protective mechanisms that are necessary for our survival. When these mechanisms are not well developed, we display poor boundaries and will accept anything as our fault or responsibility. On the other hand, when these mechanisms are overdeveloped, we may be constantly trying to protect ourselves from perceived attacks. To understand this concept better, lets discuss the fight, flight, or freeze response. When we perceive an attack, there is a part of our brain called the amygdala that takes over and is responsible of our fight, flight, or freeze response. When another person makes a comment you perceive as a personal attack, you put on your mental armor and you prepare yourself for a fight.

Defensiveness prevents real communication and can turn a simple discussion into a conflict, with people displaying all sorts of behavior like withdrawing, avoidance, withholding, and resentment. People spend a lot of energy that will eventually lead them to either shut down emotionally or to attack back. So, if everyone has this innate mechanism, why do some people react with defensiveness and others don’t? Everyone has different levels of emotional response for a variety of reasons. Some people are influenced by their childhood experiences. For example, if, when you were a kid, you parents or other family members punished or shamed you, as an adult, you may feel the need to protect yourself whenever someone seems upset with you. This is an unconscious response to a perceived danger and is one of the protective mechanisms I mentioned before. The only purpose of this defensiveness is to invalidate or suppress the other person’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. It damages self-worth and it creates a negative cycle that can hurt a loving relationship by turning it into a battle for survival.

Defensiveness in relationships.

Most relationships don’t start out this way. When people are getting into a relationship, they do everything they can to avoid conflicts with each other. For example, if one partner says something that upsets the other, they both neutralize the situation by listening with compassion and support. As relationships advance, some of that resiliency goes away. At the same time, partners don’t respond to challenges in the same way they could in the past and innocent remarks can trigger past traumas.

Defensiveness in relationships is quite common and we all have been defensive in our relationships at least once. Our partner mentions an issue they would like to discuss, and we immediately become alarmed, as if it is a personal attack. Then we start blaming our partner for bringing the issue up the first place. We generalize their statement as if it was meant to be about us and we get into a cycle of viciousness that we cannot break. If we are not skilled at rebuilding our relationship, every time we feel criticized, we will experience the same challenges.

Dealing with defensiveness.

There are many ways to prevent defensiveness. First, it is important for partners to sit down, discuss, and identify the issues and how they acknowledge the perceived attacks. Once they recognize how they defend and attack, they can evaluate what caused their defensive reactions and work toward changing those responses.

What causes defensiveness?

Each one of us tends to react differently to perceived threats. Unfortunately, different behaviors will create the same cycle. One partner’s defensive behavior causes the other partner’s defensive response, which in turn causes the first partner to raise their defense even higher, and so on. Defensiveness is multidimensional, but in simple words, it stems from emotional, mental, or personality issues or beliefs that developed in childhood or over the course of their lifetimes. Dogmatism, lack of accountability, controlling behavior, withholding of information, superiority, and critical behavior are the most common behavioral stances that can cause partners to react defensively.

How to deal with a defensive partner.

Dealing with defensiveness in your relationship is complicated and can be exhausting. As mentioned, some people’s defensiveness is so deeply rooted that there is little chance they will permanently change. However, there are some things we can do to deal with defensive partners.

Reframe the behavior.Rather than telling your partner that they are defensive, seek to understand and explore the reasons that caused their response. One of the reasons the cycle is not breaking is because we get upset with our defensive partner for the way they act without finding the reason our partner felt that way during the conversation.

Remove the perceived threat.Once you have explored the root and found the reason why your partner behaved the way they did, you need to work to remove that threat by being compassionate, respectful, and even-tempered.

Develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence.By understanding ourselves and others, we can not only regulate our own behavior, we will be able to have better insight into our partner’s behavior as well. Eventually, this will lead to an improved emotional connection.

Don’t be negative; ask questions.So far, you have probably noticed that even the smallest negative comment can set your partner off. Try replacing negativity with questions.

Shift from arrogance to curiosity.When you move from arrogance to curiosity about your partner’s state of mind, you will help your partner feel safer and less threatened.

Treat your partner as an equal.Approach your partner in a collaborative manner, looking for ways to help them. Take the time to assess and understand their needs and thoughts, discover what’s important to them, and respond with validation.

More tips for dealing with defensiveness.

Take a break.When partners come at one another, they usually go into defensive mode immediately. Instead of repeating this pattern, take a deep breath and take some time to hear what is being said and understand it before responding.

Respond positively.Instead of trying to win the argument, listen and then let your partner know that they have been heard. This simple act will help your partner see that you value their thoughts and feelings.

Accept responsibility.No matter the issue, there is something you did or didn’t do that caused your partner to react the way they did in the first place. Regardless of their response, you should accept responsibility that something on your part caused their response.

What can you do if your relationship is failing?

No relationship is perfect and every one of us faces issues. Any partnership is filled with challenges, and if left untreated, it can lead to toxicity and then to a breakup or divorce. Partners who are able to recognize their toxic behaviors and defensiveness make it possible to improve and cultivate a healthy relationship. Regardless of how you see your relationship, when defensiveness becomes a problem, it should be addressed promptly through relationship coaching  Relationship coaching will help you acknowledge the problems you’re facing and constructively communicate with your partner to resolve issues in a healthy way.

Through relationship coaching, people learn what its hidden in their unconscious and how it affects their behavior in their current relationship. They learn about the emotions, vulnerabilities, traumas, and beliefs hidden behind the defensiveness and conflict.

Relationship coaching will help by teaching you the following skills:

  • Communicate in a way that will promote emotional connection and intimacy rather than defensiveness.
  • Reveal, appreciate, and respect one another’s vulnerabilities.
  • Understand and change persistent negative habits.
  • Listen compassionately to understand and respect your partner’s point of view.
  • Renew the beliefs, values, dreams, and joys that connected you and your partner in the first place and recreate positive images of each other.
  • Set goals to make important changes in your relationship and identify the correct behaviors and boundaries for both of you.
  • Learn ways to overcome more difficult issues without the need to be defensive.
  • Learn how to communicate your emotions and thoughts in healthier ways.
  • Complete homework assignments to keep your relationship healthy and strong for many years to come.

How to know if relationship coaching will work for your relationship.

To ensure that relationship coaching will work for you, you need to ensure that you are focusing on yourself. It is common to want your partner to change or to think that your problems are their fault. Focusing on your partner will drain you emotionally because you cannot change any one but yourself.  If you create the right environment for you, your partner will change as well.

Furthermore, spend your time exploring ways to constructively contribute to changing your relationship for the better. Make sure to work alongside your partner and your relationship coach and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback about your sessions. If you feel that the sessions are not headed in the right direction, offer the others the chance to change your mind. Finally, don’t quit relationship coaching when you start feeling better. A common mistake couples make is ending coaching sessions at the first signs of improvement. Building and maintaining a healthy and strong relationship requires time, so be sure to give relationship coaching the time needed for these changes to happen.

Defensiveness damages relationships and marriages and creates a negative environment full of tension and contempt that can eventually lead to loss of trust, alienation, and even divorce. If you have trouble identifying the root of defensiveness and resolving the issues that are draining your relationship, and you feel that you are struggling and want help, don’t be afraid to seek relationship coaching.


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