“It’s not my fault we’re always late.”
“You don’t clean the house either.”
“You forgot to pay the water bill last month too, don’t blame me.”
Any of these statements sound familiar?
If so, either you or your partner are being defensive.
Defensiveness is self-protection. It’s righteous indignation.
It’s standing up for yourself, as if to say, “Leave me alone. What are you picking on me for?”
When you’re being defensive you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong and you’re letting your partner know that.
But you need to stop.
I bet you’re thinking that doesn’t seem fair. You’re thinking: “Sure, I get defensive, but only when I’m unjustly criticised.”
And doesn’t everyone need to defend themselves from time to time?
After all, you’re not a punching bag.
You’re a human being who gets hurt when disrespected.
Now, I’m with you — you deserve to be treated with respect.
But here’s the problem: most defensiveness backfires.
It ends up creating tension, causing conflict, and breaking down communication.
It’s true that you shouldn’t be a punching bag, but you also need to learn to defend yourself in a way that doesn’t antagonise.
You can protect yourself in a way that acknowledges your partner’s perspective.
And you can protect yourself against unfair attacks by using empathy and understanding, not by playing the victim and acting blameless.
If you can do this, you’ll note a marked improvement in dialogue with your partner. You’ll see that you can defend yourself while making your partner feel heard.
You’ll have fewer misunderstandings. It will be easier to organise activities together. And you’ll be able to get more things done together, more smoothly.
Let’s start right away.
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Step 1) Become a Defensiveness Spotter
Everyone is defensive occasionally.
I’ll bet you can recall a time where you’ve felt unjustly accused. You immediately came up with a reason for your behaviour hoping that your partner would back off.
See how Debra is defensive in this example:
Jim: “Did you withdraw the cash for Toby’s birthday present like you said you would?”
Debra: “I was juggling too much today. You know how busy I am! Why didn’t you do it on your way home?”
In this dialogue, Debra isn’t taking responsibility for breaking her promise. Instead, she’s blaming Jim.
Defensiveness can come in a few forms, but it always involves denying responsibility and pushing the blame away from yourself.
Here’s a few types of defensives:
Yes-But: You start off sounding like you agree but end up showing you disagree. For example, “Yeah, I know, but you could have paid her anyway.” Or “Yes, you’re right, but I wish you’d listened to me.”
Cross-Complaining: You meet a complaint directly with a counter complaint. Your partner complains about one subject, and you respond by complaining about another. This is a way of deflecting the blow of the initial complaint. For example, if you complain that your partner hasn’t washed the dishes when they ask why you didn’t do the ironing you said you would.
Excuses: Instead of meeting your partner's complaint with “Yes, I know”, you always seem to find another place to rest the blame. It’s your partner’s fault for not reminding you. Or the kids’ fault for being too noisy.
Counter-criticism: You act pouty and victimised and say, “Well, you don’t either?” For example, if your partner reminds you that you forgot to pay the water bill today you respond with, “Well, you didn’t pay it last month.”
Do you recognise any of these?
The first step to eliminating defensiveness from your dialogue is to recognise it. If you don’t know you do something, how can you hope to change it?
Step 2) Recognise Strategic Failure
As a strategy, defensiveness doesn’t work.
That’s because by not listening to your partner, you’re denying what they say is important.
Excuses tell your partner that you don’t take them seriously, or you’re trying to get them to buy into something that they don’t believe, or you’re simply blowing them off.
When you’re defensive you turn the blame back onto your partner. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.”
Your partner doesn’t back down and is angry at not being heard and having the blame deflected back onto them.
The problem remains unresolved, and the conflict escalates further.
When Debra says: “I was juggling too much today. You know how busy I am! Why didn’t you do it on your way home?” Jim immediately gets annoyed.
This wasn’t what they’d agreed!
Instead of reaching a creative solution to the problem — Jim staying home for a bit while Debra nips out to get the money, negative feelings increase, humour and affection disappear, and a row ensues.
If you want to stop being defensive, you need to recognise why it doesn’t work. Can you see how it fails as a strategy?
Step 3) Create a Time Out Cue
Want to know a trick that can help ward off defensiveness?
If you allocate yourself a slight pause before reacting to your partner’s complaint, you may be able to calm yourself before responding.
Try taking deep slow breaths that fill and empty the lungs. Focus on your body, notice any tense areas, and try to relax them.
If you find relaxing difficult to do while your partner is talking, try saying this: “I’m feeling defensive, but what you say is important to me. I want to understand. Can you give me a minute to calm myself, so I can hear what you need?”
And if that doesn’t resolve it?
If you find your emotions are intense, take up to a twenty-minute break.
Twenty minutes is best as research shows that even if you think you feel calm before 20 minutes are up, the chances are good that your heart rate is still 10% above its standard rate. This means there’s a high chance you’ll become emotional again when you return to the conversation.
During the break, focus on the positives of your relationship. If you stew on the negatives, then you’ll have wasted the opportunity to relax.
I also recommend creating a “Time Out” hand signal or special word that you both recognise.
Doing so when your calm will make it easier to ask for a break when you need one. When you use your shared “Time Out” cue, you both know you’re not abandoning the conversation and ignoring your partner.
So while things are good, and before disagreements escalate — agree to a “time out” cue and a 20-minute break. Then stick to your agreement next time you’re in the heat of the moment. You may be pleasantly surprised at the difference it makes.
Step 4) Be Responsible
Being responsible has two parts. The first is to listen and ask questions.
The second is to acknowledge your errors.
When you’re listening, try to understand your partner’s perspective. You don’t have to agree with it, but can you understand why they feel like they do?
If you’re like me, your mind instantly forms a response when your partner says something that’s even just slightly critical.
But there’s a high chance that you misunderstood their point or at the very least haven’t got a full picture. If you respond now, you may get angry and defensive unnecessarily.
Ask yourself: “What if I’m misunderstanding my partner? Could they mean something different to what I think they mean?”
It helps if you get curious about your partner. Ask for more details about their perspective.
Before moving on, check with your partner to see if you’ve understood them correctly. Again, you don’t have to agree with their point of view, you’re just trying to understand them.
Is there anything in what they say that you can take responsibility for? Is there a part of their complaint, no matter how small, that’s true?
If so, acknowledge that and apologise.
This is the antidote to defensiveness.
Even saying: “You’re kind of right,” does a lot to de-escalate conflict. For example, when Jim asked Debra: “Did you withdraw the cash for Toby’s birthday present like you said you would?”
Debra could have said: “I’m so sorry I forgot. I meant to do it this morning, but I just got so busy. I’ll go and get the money later. Or could you help?”
When Debra responds this way, she’s taking responsibility for the fact she didn’t do what she said she would, while acknowledging the pressures she under. At no point does she turn the blame back onto Jim.
Ask yourself: how can you listen better next time? What questions will you ask? Are you brave enough to take some responsibility for your mistakes?
Step 5) Don’t Take the Bait
It’s rare in any relationship for only one person to be defensive.
In practice both parties will be defensive some of the time.
If your partner responds defensively to you, avoid responding in the same way. And don’t take the moral high ground. Instead, use your listening techniques to find out more about why they have responded this way.
When Debra says: “I was juggling too much today. You know how busy I am! Why didn’t you do it on your way home?” Jim has a choice how to respond.
He could get defensive too:
“Well, it’s not like I do nothing either. Don’t you realise I’ve been at work all day? Shall I mop the floor on my way out as well?”
Or he could try to understand the pain behind the anger:
“It sounds like you had a busy day, and you feel I should have helped you out more. Is there anything I can do to help?”
This time Jim reflects what he’s hearing (Debra’s situation and pain) and asks a question.
In this scenario, there’s a high chance Debra will now be apologetic and open-up about the pressures she’s been under today. Together they’ll draw up a plan to get the money for Toby’s birthday present.
So how about it? Do you think you can seek to understand and empathise with your partner, even if you’re feeling under attack? Are you strong enough to pull you both out of a negative cycle?
Step 6) Make a Friend
To stop being defensive (and to stop responding badly to defensiveness) you need to see your partner as an ally.
When your partner raises a complaint with you, try to put aside any other negativity you have towards them or the relationship and focus on this specific issue.
Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities.
Don’t swim off in a sea of righteous indignation. Don’t make yourself an innocent victim. And don’t consume yourself in negative thoughts about your partner.
“I deserve better.”
“He/She’s such an idiot.”
“I never get any appreciation for all that I do.”
Thoughts like these can stop you listening. And they’re not fair to your partner. Most likely they’re not one hundred percent accurate and you can change them to a more realistic picture of your relationship.
In the heat of the moment could you reassure yourself with sentences like these:
“Don’t take this personally. Calm down. Things will be okay.”
“This really isn’t about me. They’ve probably had a bad day.”
“I’m hurt, and I love my partner. I need to calm down so we can figure this out together.”
The most productive way to stop defensive communication is to choose to have a positive view of your partner. It’s vital you reintroduce admiration in your relationship to achieve this.
Are you up for it? Do you think you can make an intentional effort to replace negative thoughts with soothing, compassionate ones? Can you make your partner your friend?
Lower Your Defensiveness and Improve Your Dialogue
Defensiveness is common in all relationships.
It’s natural to want to defend yourself when you feel wrongly accused.
And you shouldn’t be anyone’s punching bag.
But there’s a good way to be defensive and a bad way.
The bad way makes yourself a victim, acts indignant and pushes the blame back onto the person with the complaint.
But the good way means you suspend your initial judgement, listen and ask more questions until you’ve understood your partner's perspective, and take some responsibility for what’s happened, even if you don’t agree with everything they’ve said.
Start at Step 1 and learn to recognise defensiveness. Then learn the antidotes. Don’t forget to try to keep a positive perspective. Focus on one issue rather than your relationship as a whole.
If you can eliminate — or even just reduce— the amount of defensiveness in your dialogue, you’ll notice an improvement in both your arguments and your relationship.
Communicating differences will be easier. Planning activities together will improve. You’ll feel more like a team.
Who doesn’t want that?