Issue #10 |May 2009

Today’s Topic: The Many Faces of Defensiveness

When you have no point to defend, you do not allow the birth of an argument.

- Deepak Chopra

Defensiveness adds “fuel to the flames”

A 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

While 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.

“Did 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.

Sound a little defensive?

Whether 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.

Defensiveness 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.

Why doesn’t defensiveness work?

According 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 manner!

By being defensive, both partners handicap their ability to understand each other's perspective. Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, it doesn't resolve it.

In his 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.

Here are 7 common signs of defensiveness – with examples:

1) Making Excuses
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 promised?
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.

2) Cross-complaining
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 to them.
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!

4) Yes-Butting
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.

5) Repeating Yourself
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!

6) Denying responsibility
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 goes missing!

7) Tone and Body Language
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.

How to deal with your defensiveness?
As 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 unaware of.

Remember: 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.

So 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.

Invitation to action
Over 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 for you?
• What new possibilities open up when you acknowledge your defensiveness?
Shirley’s Update:

I 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:

Shirley 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
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Copyright © 2009 by Shirley Vollett. All rights reserved.