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  • Writer's pictureCoty Nolin

Couples Therapy Insights: Why Couples Struggle with Defensiveness

What is “defensiveness”? Defensiveness means “excessive concern with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one's ego, exposure of one's shortcomings, etc.” Defensiveness can show up in several parts of our lives. In relationships, defensiveness often looks like the inability to take ownership for one’s role in a couple dynamic or in conflict. It can show up in many forms, if you have ever shared your feelings with someone and you get a response like, “That’s not what I meant!”, “Actually this is what i said/how i said it!”, “Why are you bringing that up?” instead of centering the emotional experience, you may have encountered someone being defensive.


Defensiveness is one of the 4 horsemen. According to John Gottman’s couple research, perpetual defensiveness in a relationship can lead to the demise of the relationship. So, it should be taken seriously if you notice you and your partner continue to struggle with defensiveness.


So why do folks get defensive? Defensiveness is protection. We become defensive because it can feel too painful/dangerous/unsafe to address the emotions or experience we are protecting ourselves or our relationships from. For example, if your partner says “it hurts my feelings when you make jokes about my cooking” and you respond with “But i don’t mean anything by it, you are so sensitive!”, you may be protecting yourself from the feeling of hurting someone else, the feeling of making a mistake, the feelings you have around the relationship, or even connecting with your partners vulnerabilities. Why we become defensive is different for every individual, and is nuanced to every relationships’ specific challenges.


So you may want to ask yourself, what are you protecting yourself from when defensiveness surfaces?


What can you do to work with defensiveness? You can try to understand what is underlying the defensiveness and what you are protecting, but you can also turn towards listening. Listening skills can help us show our partners we are engaged with their emotions and experiences. Listening can also show that we want to connect. This is a powerful skill that I encourage couples to learn more about.

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