Topic: The Many Faces of Defensiveness
you have no point to defend, you do not allow the birth of an argument.
Defensiveness adds “fuel to the flames”
sure-fire way of escalating conflict in our relationships is by being
defensive. This usually happens when we feel criticized or attacked
by another --- whether or not that was their intent. Defensiveness
is an understandable attempt to protect ourselves – however
it isn’t very effective.
A personal example of defensiveness
writing this article, I was working at my computer. From the bathroom
next to my office, my husband called out, “Where are all the
towels gone?” I thought I detected a note of irritation in his
voice. “They’re in the wash,” I called back. I had
just put all the dirty towels in the washing machine.
you have to put them ALL in the wash?” responded my husband
as he walked away, air-drying his hands. “I’m not the
ONLY one capable of walking upstairs and getting a clean towel!”
I yelled after him.
a little defensive?
or not it was intended, I felt criticized by my husband -- and out
slipped a defensive response. Had my husband and I continued this
interaction over the towels, I expect we could easily have escalated
into a full-blown argument over who-does-what around the house. Did
my husband actually intend to be critical or attacking? Because of
my defensive response, I never got to find out.
is a very “human” response. Sometimes our partner is indeed
critical or even nasty in delivering a communication. However as John
Gottman, the well-known relationship expert, points out -- defensiveness
rarely produces the effect we desire. The attacking or critical spouse
doesn’t back down or apologize.
doesn’t defensiveness work?
to Gottman, it backfires because “defensiveness is really a
way of blaming your partner”. When we’re defensive, we’re
saying to our partner “The problem isn’t me, it’s
you.” Small wonder that our partner often responds in a self-protective/attacking
defensive, both partners handicap their ability to understand each
other's perspective. Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, it
doesn't resolve it.
book When Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman alerts us to the
most common signs of defensiveness. Many of us are acutely aware of
our partner’s tendency to be defensive. However we may be less
aware of our own defensive reactions. So I invite you to consider
how defensiveness shows up in you.
are 7 common signs of defensiveness – with examples:
This is when you claim that external forces beyond your control
forced you to act in a certain way.
Partner 1: Why didn’t you pick up my dry cleaning like you
Partner 2: That big client of mine talks so much, there’s
no way I could get away from work in time to get your dry-cleaning.
This is when you meet your partner’s complaint or criticism
with an immediate complaint or criticism of your own, totally ignoring
what your partner has said.
Partner 1: Isn’t dinner ready yet?
Partner 2: The garbage you said you’d take out to the back
is still sitting at the door!
3) Table Turning
In one move, you defend yourself from attack and blame your partner,
showing them how their complaint or criticism about you applies
Partner 1: I’ve been waiting for 20 minutes and you’re
still not ready.
Partner 2: I had to wait a half hour for YOU yesterday when you
were late to pick me up from work!
This includes any statement that starts with agreeing and ends up
disagreeing, justifying your transgression.
Partner 1: Why can’t you leave some hot water for me when
you shower in the morning?
Partner 2: I know you needed to shower but I had to wash and condition
my hair and I’m really not very awake first thing in the morning.
Thinking you are right, you repeat back your point of view –
often louder -- rather than try to understand your partner’s
point of view.
Partner 1: I’d like to go home now.
Partner 2: I just want to talk to a few more people.
Partner 1: I really don’t want to stay at this party any longer.
Partner 2: Honest, I just want to talk to a few more people!
No matter what your partner charges, you insist in no uncertain
terms that you are not to blame. This tendency also underlies many
of the previous ones.
Partner 1: I can’t find my keys since you used them.
Partner 2: I don’t know why you always blame ME when something
7) Tone and
Beyond words, we can also convey defensiveness by our tone and/or
body language. Whining, crossing our arms across our chest, a false
smile when we don’t mean it are just of few of the ways that
we may defend ourselves against our partner’s perceived criticism.
to deal with your defensiveness?
a starting point, begin to notice when you are reacting defensively.
Becoming more aware of your own defensive responses is the first step
in reducing them. It’s difficult to change what you’re
Your partner is trying to convey some important information to you.
They may not always communicate in the most constructive and responsible
manner. And you may not listen in the most constructive manner --
you may be quick to assume attack, especially in those areas where
you feel vulnerable.
when you notice that you’re responding defensively, you can
acknowledge this to yourself – and your partner. “I’m
feeling defensive, so it’s hard for me to hear what you are
saying.” This admission alone may change the course of the
entire conversation. From there, it may be much easier to hear what
your partner is actually trying to say.
the coming week, begin to notice when/if you react defensively. Then
reflect on these questions:
• What situations/topics are most likely to trigger your defensiveness?
• What “style of defensiveness” is most typical
• What new possibilities open up when you acknowledge your defensiveness?
recommend a wonderful film on YouTube called “How will we
love?” The filmmaker was inspired by his grandparents, who
are celebrating 65 years of marriage. The film explores love and
commitment from many perspectives, with interviews of couples, individuals,
and some well-known relationship experts and authors. It is a hopeful
film; however it also expresses the challenges faced in today’s
relationships. You can view it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqAEfBMlJoc
Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over 20 years
of combined experience in counselling and coaching. She delights in
helping pro-active individuals make positive changes in their lives,
their work/business and their relationships. Her clients appreciate
her ability to listen deeply, her compassionate wisdom and her support
in staying focused. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone
session. If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make
some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help. Click
on a link below or visit her website at http://shirley.vollett.com
you are reading this for the first time and wish to subscribe, email
firstname.lastname@example.org and put
Subscribe in the subject line
newsletter may be forwarded in full without special permission provided
it is used for nonprofit purposes and full attribution and copyright
notice are given. For any other purposes, contact email@example.com.
© 2009 by Shirley Vollett. All rights reserved.