Couple Talking on the Couch

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August 10, 2022 — 11:03 AM

In the event that someone is upset with you, things can basically go one of two ways: You can graciously apologize, or you can get defensive. And defensiveness is known as one of the “four horsemen” that predict divorce for a reason.

Of course, nobody’s perfect, and that means sometimes we’re going to ruffle some feathers. So, it’s important to learn how to handle defensive impulses when you find yourself in this situation.

Recognizing defensive behavior.

Let’s be honest—we’ve all been defensive before. We hear a complaint from a partner, we feel they’re calling our character into question, and so the knee-jerk reaction is often to jump to our own defense and explain why we didn’t say, do, or mean what we’re being “accused” of.

“To be defensive is to react with an overprotective mentality to a situation that perhaps doesn’t warrant it,” marriage therapist Linda Carroll, LMFT, writes at mbg. “Rather than listening with an open heart, we respond with our metaphorical shields up and weapons drawn.”

Defensiveness is a problem because not only are we not listening with the intent to understand, but as couples’ therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, previously told mbg, “In these moments, we are held within the grips of the ego, which acts as a barrier to authentic communication and connection.”

Earnshaw adds there are actually very few scenarios in which we truly need to defend our point of view. “Multiple realities exist,” she notes. “[When people get defensive], they struggle to see that listening and validating do not mean agreeing and that giving space to the other person does not mean you will never get space to share when the time is right.”

How to curb defensiveness.

If the above sounds all too familiar, here’s a three-step process for nipping defensive behavior in the bud and focusing more on connection and understanding:

1. Validate the other person’s perspective.

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First things first: When you start to feel that inclination to defend yourself or prove your innocence beginning to bubble up, Earnshaw says to focus instead on trying to validate the other person’s perspective.

To start, offer simple phrases that express validation of what the person is experiencing, such as “I understand why you’re angry,” or “I can hear why you would think that,” Earnshaw suggests.

And of course, don’t just say it, but really try to feel into what this person is upset about. Can you truly appreciate their concerns and, further, focus on truly understanding them in this conversation? If so, you’re already on the right track.

“When you respond to differing opinions or criticisms in this way, you are connecting with the other person and defusing the tension. This creates trust. And with trust, we open up more space for discussion,” Earnshaw explains. “The other person lets their guard down and will be more willing to hear you out, too.”

2. Acknowledge the defensiveness.

According to Carroll, a key step to moving past defensive behavior is to acknowledge it honestly: “If your partner is giving you criticism that is making you feel defensive, can you express why?”

This both allows you to process why you might be responding in this way (it can have to do with your personal history, self-esteem, or even just your personal temperament, she notes) while also letting your partner know that you’re trying to work through your defensive instincts right now.

From there, she suggests trying to continue working through the conflict as “honestly and generously as possible.”

Last but not least, the most important step is to own up to your behavior. Even if some of the criticism seems unwarranted, there’s more than likely something to take responsibility for.

If your partner is upset that you yelled at them, for example, rather than saying, “I only yelled at you because I’m so stressed about work,” Earnshaw suggests saying something like, “I can take responsibility for the way I spoke to you last night. It was wrong.”

The goal is not to prove your innocence; it’s to help your partner feel validated and understood, so you can both move forward.

Trying to defend yourself out of a partner’s complaint isn’t going to get you far. (In fact, it’ll probably just upset the other person more.)

“We all need to be able to receive criticism,” Carroll writes. “Learning to hear our partners complaints with curiosity and openness not only deepens the connection between us but helps us be more open in all of our relationships.”

In the face of conflict, our ability to come out on the other side has a lot to do with swallowing our pride, accepting where we’ve messed up, apologizing well, and holding ourselves accountable so we can do better next time—which is what healthy relationships are all about.

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