Defense! Defense! A relationship is not a football game!

One of the main barriers to great communication in any relationship is when one or both partners get defensive. Since good conflict resolution is born out of great communication skills, you need to learn how to recognize defensive behaviors when you talk to your partner. How can being defensive affect your relationship, and what can you do to replace defensiveness with constructive conversation?

Strong Defense, Weak Communication

Sometimes, you might not even notice yourself becoming defensive during a conversation. The need to defend against outside attack is built into the human body as a survival mechanism. However, people who struggle to control their defensiveness often anticipate a battle when there is none, escalating a normal conversation to an argument because a statement was taken as an attack. The conversation then moves away from solving the issue at hand, and instead becomes a conflict about communication styles, hurt feelings, and personality differences. When the small issues that happen on a daily basis are set aside by a defensive response, there are more fights and fewer resolutions.

Steps To Change

The first step to stop defensive behavior is to recognize it in yourself. Defensiveness is like a reflex for many people, so it means you’ll actively bite your tongue when you are approached by something sensitive and craft a response that is more communication-friendly. You might have to try the following exercises:

  • listen fully to what your partner is trying to talk to you about. Defensive reactions can happen over the smallest things. For example: your partner says, “Have you moved my cars keys again? I need to–” and you interrupt with, “Well, it’s not like you always put things back where they go!” This exchange cuts off the conversation and escalates it into a conflict, and you never find out what your partner actually is trying to say.
  • taking a break. If you are trying to have a serious discussion, but you feel yourself preparing for battle, so to speak, tell your partner that you need ten minutes or an hour to calm down so that you can be ready to talk without getting defensive.
  • agree when you can. When your partner says, “When you move my keys from the hook, I can never get to work on time,” respond with something like, “You’re right, I don’t always remember to put the keys back when I borrow your car.” You might have a good reason for not returning the keys, but your partner doesn’t know that. Cooperating from the get-go helps your partner feel like you are willing to work together for a solution. Agreement also opens the door for explanations, like, “The last time I used your car, the baby was crying all the way home, so I didn’t think about putting your keys away because I was distracted. They’re probably still in my purse.”


Obviously, this is a fairly simplistic example that I am using strictly to make a point. Most conflict does raise the stakes with more serious issues. If you and your partner are still struggling with defensiveness in your conversations, talk to a marriage counselor for more help and communication tools.  To learn more, contact me. I will be happy to talk with you.  Howard Rossen.

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A Therapist's Blog

My name is Howard Rossen, and I am a Licensed Clinical Psychotherapist on the Upper West Side in New York City. I offer compassionate care to help enhance your mental health. As a therapist, I can help you work through many issues of concern.

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