Is Defensiveness Hurting Your Relationship? Try These Coping Strategies Instead

Updated January 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you feel attacked, it may feel challenging to hear what another person has to say while keeping an open mind. Instead, your first impulse may be to defend yourself, or you may try to turn the tables by pointing out flaws in the other person's behavior. By the end of the conversation, it is possible that no one feels heard and a
misunderstanding could have occurred.

Criticism can feel painful when it comes from the people you feel closest to and even when someone has positive intentions. A defensive reaction may keep you closed off from building supportive relationships. Learning to spot when you and others act with defensiveness may be valuable in learning to have better conversations that result in solutions instead of circular arguments.

Are Defense Mechanisms Stymieing Important Conversations?

Why Do We Get Defensive?

Defensiveness can mean trying to counter or deny criticisms in areas where you feel sensitive, afraid, guilty, or deceitful. In some cases, defensiveness may arise if you felt the need to use specific coping skills in childhood or adolescence to survive, and those skills were helpful at the time. As an adult, however, defensiveness may no longer serve you. Additionally, defensive habits may cause difficulties in pushing others away or communicating. 

Our brains instinctively kick into "fight or flight" mode when we think we are in trouble, which may lead to overwhelming emotions like anger or anxiety. Even if we aren't in physical danger, we might feel under attack when it seems like someone is threatening our sense of identity, fundamental values, or worth.

Practicing skills like self-compassion and problem-solving might help you remain calm and pause any instinctive reactions. This pause could allow you space to hear criticism, explore why it makes you uncomfortable, and try your best to work toward a solution.

What Does Defensive Behavior Look Like?

Defensive behavior can range from minor to severe, depending on the circumstances. A person may show defensiveness in several ways. For example, if a person says something you disagree with, and you make a sarcastic comment or criticize them for saying something to you, it may be a defensive response. 

You might also feel defensive if someone brings up how you hurt their feelings. Instead of listening to them and understanding why they felt hurt, you may bring up the things they have done in the past that caused you to feel harm and ignore their initial statement. 

Other signs of defensiveness may include: 

  • Acting out

  • Placing the blame on another person ("they wouldn't act like "that" if you didn't do "this" ”)

  • Giving the silent treatment

  • Fighting or becoming violent

  • Crossing your arms

  • Nitpicking or debating a person's point-of-view

  • Getting stuck on the details versus the big picture of a conflict

  • Using language that reflects a lack of agency ("I couldn't help it") 

Why Do We Get Defensive With Others? 

People act defensively in relationships for a variety of reasons. They might fear an attack, struggle to compromise, or not know how else to respond. They could also feel angry with you about something from the past that they have not let go of or have kept inside. 

If you have noticed defensiveness in your relationships, it might be necessary to talk to the person about low-stakes conflicts you've had. You may want to start with a topic you know won't start a significant argument and ease your way into difficult conversations. This strategy could limit defensiveness at times. 

An example of a low-stakes conflict may be leaving dirty dishes on the counter or listening to the TV at a loud volume while the other person is trying to study for a test. However, choose something that works for you. What upsets one person may not upset another. 

You may find yourself choosing partners who have similar behaviors to people who hurt you in the past. Or you might do something seemingly innocuous that triggers a negative emotion from your partner's previous relationship. For example, maybe they used to be with a partner who critiqued their driving skills aggressively. If you make a suggestion while driving, your partner might feel defensive due to their experience. 

Many people may not realize how much defensiveness negatively affects their relationships. They may need help eliminating defensive behaviors that previously served them but do not anymore. People may use several effective coping strategies to replace defense mechanisms. Working with a partner or therapist is one way to start feeling more control over your reactions and nervous system activation.

What Are The Different Defense Mechanisms? 

To change your defensive behavior, you may need to become aware of how you avoid complicated feelings. Studies show that suppressing emotions can have detrimental impacts. For this reason, opening up about your emotions can be essential. 

While you may know when you are acting defensively, it may feel challenging to recognize the defense mechanisms behind your reactions. Though they sound similar, defensiveness is usually a behavior you are aware of, while defense mechanisms are habits you might use without realizing it. 

Defensive behavior can come from multiple defense mechanisms used to avoid the threat to self-esteem caused by criticism. A few examples may include:

  • Denial: Refusing to see your responsibility or that a problem exists at all

  • Projection: Attributing your thoughts and feelings to another person ("I'm not angry, you're angry")

  • Acting out: Having an overblown response (like breaking something or yelling) instead of expressing your emotions with kind words 

  • Rationalization: Bending the truth to justify your behavior

  • Displacement: Taking out your frustration from another problem on someone not involved (getting in a fight with your partner because of trouble at work)

  • Intellectualizing: Only focusing on the facts of a situation while ignoring their emotional significance

Defense mechanisms can range from "primitive" responses (like denial, projecting, or acting out) to "mature" ones (like rationalizing, displacement, or intellectualizing), with some being more effective at soothing painful emotions than others. 

However, no defense mechanism is healthy in all situations. They may help you avoid uncomfortable feelings without actually fixing the problem.

What Coping Strategies Can Be Used In Place Of Defense Mechanisms?

You may intentionally choose coping strategies to handle difficult emotions and stressful situations. Problem-solving coping strategies work on changing how we face challenges, while emotion-focused coping strategies help us manage how we experience our feelings. In those categories, we have active coping strategies, which we use to manage stress head-on, and avoidant strategies, which involve distancing ourselves from the problem.

Like defense mechanisms, coping strategies may vary in how effective or healthy they are. While active strategies are generally perceived as more effective than avoidant ones (like isolating ourselves or using substances to numb emotions), sometimes we need space to grasp our feelings. For example, meditation and exercise are both valuable ways of relieving stress and improving self-esteem while temporarily avoiding a situation. 

Defensiveness can be seen as an avoidant coping strategy in which you may choose to dodge responsibility for your actions. It may feel challenging at first, but you can train your mind to view criticism as an opportunity for problem-solving and growth. 

Self-Compassion

A defensive way of acting is reacting to actions or words you feel threaten your self-esteem. Practicing self-forgiveness may allow you to own up to what you've done wrong without feeling consumed by shame or feelings so you can change and grow. 

Self-compassion may allow you to notice your emotions without judgment, so you can recognize them instead of pushing the problem away. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three parts:

  1. Kindness: Kindness might involve showing understanding toward yourself when you experience negative feelings instead of ignoring the pain or punishing yourself. In essence, you may treat yourself like a friend who needs help.

  2. Connectedness: Connectedness can entail recognizing that you are not alone with your problem. Everyone can struggle with difficult emotions at some point in their lives, and many have made mistakes in dealing with them.

  3. Mindfulness: Mindfulness may help you remain open to any difficult emotions you are experiencing at the moment without making them seem more significant than they are. You may acknowledge that you are in distress without being swept away by adverse reactions. Additionally, studies show that mindfulness can improve self-compassion

Taking Responsibility

The Gottman Institute calls defensiveness one of the "four horsemen" that predict the end of relationships. When a partner is defensive, they may shift the blame instead of attempting to understand their partner's feelings or concerns. Defensiveness might change conversations into contests over who is right instead of finding a way to relate to where the other person is coming from. 

Regardless of who is being defensive in the conversation, one way to stop blame-passing is to take responsibility for your role in the issue. Describing problems using "I" statements highlighting your point of view could make feedback seem less accusatory than "you" statements. 

For example, you could say, "I've been feeling overwhelmed by all of the dishes left in the sink," instead of, "you never help clean the kitchen." You can explain yourself but also respond with accountability for your part in the dilemma. For example, you might say, "I've been very busy, but I see where I could have helped out more around the house."

Using this strategy can avoid an ad hominem attack and keep the conversation focused on being open, creating more space for all involved to let their guard down and come to a solution without feeling worse. 

At times, it may help to establish a goal at the beginning of a conversation. That way, if you find yourselves engaging in circular reasoning, you may redirect each other back to your end goal. For example, perhaps your goal is to feel both heard and loved. 

When feeling insecure during a conversation, try to stick to "I" statements instead of "you" statements, accept responsibility for your side of things, and avoid the blame game.

Give Yourself A Moment

A pause can be a valuable tool for a defensive conversation. If you need a break from a difficult conversation, ensure you communicate that you need time to process. Once you finish, be sure to return to the conversation. 

The Harvard Business Review suggests taking three breaths before responding to criticisms that put you on edge:

  • Breath 1: Acknowledge your first reaction, but don't give in to it (usually to defend yourself from the perceived attack).

  • Breath 2: Acknowledge your second reaction, but don't give in to it (which is usually to retaliate against the other person).

  • Breath 3: Now that you've given yourself a moment to get past defending yourself and retaliating, try to find a solution.

The Harvard Business Review also recommends acting as a "plusser." This term can mean listening to the other person's words and building on them. You might ask what they think the next step should be. 

Try asking, "I see where you might be coming from. Could you say more about that?" Asking meaningful questions could keep the conversation cooperative and help the other person feel heard.

Are Defense Mechanisms Stymieing Important Conversations?

How Can I Get Help In Replacing Defense Mechanisms With Coping Strategies?

It can feel challenging to see the patterns that unconsciously influence your actions. Talking with a licensed counselor may give you a fresh perspective on whether unhelpful thoughts are getting in the way of your full potential.

On the other hand, perhaps you are not a defensive person, and you live or interact with defensive people. It can feel tricky to engage in a conversation with someone with low self-esteem or stressors like poor physical health, a high-pressure job, or other factors that can make a relationship difficult. 

There are various options depending on the relationship, such as a marriage counselor or family therapist. When people talk defensively, it can be difficult to have a relationship with them. Defense mechanisms are often rooted in painful experiences. It can take time, patience, and practice to change lifelong emotional habits that we've used to survive difficult situations. Licensed therapists can provide information about coping skills and a nonjudgmental space to try new ways of managing emotions. 

If you're looking for counseling individually or as a couple, options may be available in your area. Additionally, many individuals opt for online counseling, as it can allow you to schedule a session when it is most convenient for you, which isn't always possible in a traditional in-person therapy environment. 

Online therapy is an effective solution that utilizes various therapy techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), art therapy, and narrative therapy. All of these can be useful in identifying and understanding defensive tendencies that we may be struggling with. Studies have found that online therapy is as effective as face-to-face therapy and immensely valuable in improving social and communication understanding and knowledge in clients working through issues related to defensiveness.

If you want to participate in therapy now, you can try an online therapy platform like BetterHelp for individuals or ReGain for couples. 

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Takeaway

Defensiveness is often an instinctive reaction against things we believe are threats to us. However, feedback can give us insight into improving ourselves. 

Learning new coping strategies may allow you to feel compassionate toward your vulnerabilities and open to new perspectives to create better solutions with the people in your life. If you're ready to get started, consider reaching out to a counselor. 

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