Relationship Destroying Behavior: Defensiveness

6 Tips for Defending Against Defensiveness

There are four behaviors so deadly to a relationship, be it a romantic, familial, or business, that they have been called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ by relationship expert, John Gottman, Ph.D. This is the third in a series of articles devoted to understanding the impact of each of these behaviors. I've included tips, tools and strategies to help you reduce the impact of the behaviors, which are:

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling

This time we look at Defensiveness

In the last article about the 2nd Horsemen, Contempt, I mentioned that long simmering negative thoughts about your partner can fuel contempt. Contempt attacks not just what someone does (which would be Horsemen #1, Criticism), but who the person is. It’s an assault on their character. Defensiveness is different. It is a harmful behavior that is often overlooked. It is sneaky in its ability to destroy a relationship.

Why is defensiveness so destructive to relationship?

It is natural to defend ourselves when we feel wrongly accused or attacked. We all want to be heard and understood. Being heard creates intimacy, unity, and connectedness; but defensiveness says, “I’m not the problem, you are.” See if you recognize any of these:

  • If you hadn't done ________, I wouldn't have done ______.
  • If you weren't so _________, I wouldn't be so ___________.
  • You made me, you know.
  • I do not.
  • It’s all in your head. You’re making it up.
  • I never said that.

With a response like that, no one feels heard. Defensiveness prevents meeting on an emotional level and escalates conflict.

Here are a few tips for managing defensiveness.

If you are feeling defensive:

  1. Repeat what you heard and ask for clarification. “I’m hearing that you think I am not trustworthy. Is that true? Can you clarify that for me?” Many times we hear things more harshly than they are meant. Even if your partner did say you are trustworthy, the more s/he gets to express it the calmer s/he will become. Remember to breathe. They are speaking about their experience. There is no rebuttal to their experience. It is real for them.

Your partner will calm down after he or she gets to talk for a while, especially if you don’t fire back with something you think is brilliant, and instead just listen. When s/he is done you will get your turn.

  1. Look for the 2% truth in what they are saying. The other person may be exaggerating the complaint but there is almost always some useful truth in there somewhere. If you can acknowledge even part of the other’s complaint it will help de-escalate your conflict. “I can see how you feel I am untrustworthy when I’m late so often.”

If the person you are talking to is feeling defensive:

  1. Take responsibility for how you say what you say. The other person may be feeling criticized even though that isn't what you intended. Re-phrase what you intended to say in a way that is not critical. “Let me start over. I can see that what I am saying isn't landing right.”
  2. Clarify misunderstandings. To avoid further misunderstanding make sure the other person heard what you intended to say. Ask them what they heard and clarify anything they didn't understand.
  3. Don’t get tricked into being defensive back. When someone is lashing out at you you’ll be tempted to fire something back in order to defend yourself. As best you can, hold on to it. No sense blowing those smoldering embers into a full-fledged fire.
  4. Listen attentively and reflect. Let the other person know you understand what s/he is saying and assure them that you are not deaf to their needs. As best you can reflect what was said. “It must be very difficult for you when I am late. Do you feel that I don’t care about you?” Being heard in this way will eliminate a lot of defensiveness. And of course, do your best to be on time once in a while. Win him or her over with your actions.

For both of you, it is important to let each other know that first and foremost, that you want to find a way to connect and that you are bringing the issue up because you care about the relationship. This will go a long way toward lowering the possibility of defensiveness for either of you, and pave the way for a more productive conversation.


I have triple certifications as a life, relationship and grief recovery coach, with extensive training as a relationship systems coach, mediator and collaborative divorce facilitator. I know the heartache of leaving a life you love, and leaving a family without its container. I am divorced, just like you. My divorce came after 30 years of marriage. I was “in it” (the pain, turmoil, confusion, blame, guilt, etc) for a number of years, since it took us nearly 5 years to get divorced. (It was a big decision that I didn't take lightly.) One of the remarkable surprises, and one that I totally did not expect, was who I became through the process. Pain changes us. It makes us kinder and gentler and more aware. I became all those things. I love the person I have become, and you can love the new you, too. I can help with that. I fully believe in your ability to get through and get better. You can lean on my faith in you, and my faith in the process, until you find your own.

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