May 29, 2024
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How Defensiveness Sabotages Our Relationships


Defensiveness is Certainly a Way to Protect Ourselves, Right? Let’s Rigure Out if it’s Actually Helpful


Defensiveness is one of those things which must make therapists’ ears prick up. Here is something to dig into. Apparently, it originates in our childhoods and makes us feel protected by ourselves because nobody else will make us feel safe. Heartbreaking? Absolutely. Helpful? Not necessarily. 

Does this have to end the relationship? 

All couples disagree at some point. It can be about money, children, friends, housework or a million other things. So when an issue arises, you’ll have to figure out if it’s the kind of thing which you can work out, or if you need to break up. For example, if you want kids and your partner doesn’t, your relationship won’t last and you will have to, sadly, say goodbye. However, if you want to eat Thai food for dinner and your partner would prefer pizza, you can compromise or find a solution and move on with your life. 

Working together

As I mentioned in last week’s article, when you and your significant other come to a disagreement, it can be helpful to position yourselves vs the issue instead of one person vs the other. You should be a team, so you need to act like it. You’re supposed to support your partner, and they’re supposed to support you. This is hard to do when one person acts defensively, because they’re automatically assuming that they’re being attacked during a disagreement. 



When a person becomes defensive, they separate into two selves. One who is protective, and one who needs protection. This is called “splitting” and often starts in childhood when we don’t have anyone to look out for us so we create an alter-ego who can run wild. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also something which you need to work on. If you’re busy managing different versions of yourself, you’re not going to have a productive disagreement and either you’re going to be hurt or you’re going to attack your partner. 

How to identify defensiveness

Defensiveness can take a number of different forms. Psychoanalyst Jordan Dann, MFA, LP, CIRT has identified four of these:

  1. Defensive dismissal. This is when you tell your partner that whatever they’re upset about isn’t important. It’s a tricky one because sometimes a person is projecting and whatever they’re claiming to be distressed over isn’t the actual cause, so you may need to dig deeper to find out what’s really going on. For example, you find your partner furious over a plate left in the sink. You might not think this is important, but for them, it’s indicative of your inability to help with household tasks. Instead of telling them they’re being ridiculous, consider your own actions and figure out a way to resolve an issue. 
  2. Defensive disowning. The quote from Dann is “I’m not being defensive, YOU’RE being defensive”. This is hilarious and sounds like a sleepy child claiming that they’re not tired and, in fact, you are tired. Projection much? Also, aggressive tones shouldn’t be used in disagreements. They escalate problems and don’t solve them.
  3. Defensive rationale or explanation. Here’s a scenario. You return from a long day and snap at your partner. This isn’t ok, but it does sometimes happen. You need to apologise and, while you might explain that you were in a bad mood for whatever reason, you still need to apologise and find a way to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Realising that you need some decompression time and would prefer to be left alone unless there’s an emergency would be a good start, and discuss this with your partner. Your bad day isn’t their fault and you love this person, so don’t lash out at them.
  4. Defensive victimisation. Putting on a martyr act might work if you’re looking to be canonised, but it’s pretty exhausting for anyone around you. Instead of complaining about the requirements and stress put on you, talk to your partner about ways to feel more supported and equal. Sometimes everyone needs a good moan, and that’s what diaries are for. Then work with your partner to find a solution, instead of pitying yourself. Change your circumstances. 

What to do about defensiveness

If you think you’re being defensive, pause the disagreement and come back to it later. Take some time to breathe and work out if you’re actually being threatened or if it just feels that way. If you’re in danger, then you need to leave, but if not, try to understand why your partner is acting the way they are. Sit down for a calm conversation with love, empathy and clear resolutions. 


Defensiveness in relationships is common and easy to do, but it often works as a form of sabotage and can result in you and your partner splitting up. You shouldn’t have to isolate yourself, and instead find a way to be intimate with your partner because they want what’s best for both of you. Identifying defensive behaviour can prevent and disrupt these patterns and eventually lead to longer and happier relationships, so it’s certainly worth doing.
Rachel Hall, M.A., completed her education in English at the University of Pennsylvania and received her master’s degree in family therapy from Northern Washington University. She has been actively involved in the treatment of anxiety disorders, depression, OCD, and coping with life changes and traumatic events for both families and individual clients for over a decade. Her areas of expertise include narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and therapy for traumatic cases. In addition, Rachel conducts workshops focusing on the psychology of positive thinking and coping skills for both parents and teens. She has also authored numerous articles on the topics of mental health, stress, family dynamics and parenting.

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