The Destructive Power of Defensiveness

Updated: 5 days ago

“My spouse is always defensive” is a common complaint that we hear time and time again. It is also an issue that led to our marriage hitting the low points that it did. It is a very frustrating behavior that can ultimately destroy because the causes for it are deeply rooted.

The roots of this relational problem normally lie in a person’s past. People who are defensive in arguments might have been raised in an environment where they felt as if they had to constantly justify themselves.

We defend because we feel like we’re being attacked. We may not actually get attacked, but we may feel like it. We feel like we are not emotionally safe so we defend.

Defensiveness is an impulsive and reactive way of responding to a situation or conversation. Rather than listening with an open heart, we respond with our metaphorical shields up and weapons drawn.


When others give you negative feedback or tell you they are upset about something you did, you reply by: 1.    Explaining why you did what you did. Often people don’t care why you did what you did, they simply care that you did what you did. As a result, they want an apology, not an explanation. 2.    Turning the tables on them. There are few things more frustrating than talking with someone about how they hurt you only to have them flip the tables on you and tell you how you often hurt them. Do NOT respond to someone’s upset with your own upset. Hear them, acknowledge their feelings, be accountable for your actions and repair what you did. 3.    Dismissing them or their message. Minimizing someone’s feelings or telling them they’re too sensitive or crazy or any other out-of-line, dismissive remark is NOT going to help your relationship or your job. Rather than dismissing what they’re saying, slow down and actually try to take in what they’re saying. This is a huge part of being an emotional grown up; stop the minimizing. 4.    Justifying your actions. If your actions hurt someone, acknowledge their hurt, don’t justify your actions. If you’re wrong then have the courage to own it. Don’t explain all the reasons you think it was okay that you did what you did. 5.    Placing blame on someone else or some external factor. If you made a mistake, take 100% responsibility for your mistake. Don’t blame other people or outside circumstances for your actions—that makes the entire issue ten times worse, not better. 6.    Acting as if you’re the wounded party. It’s RIDICULOUS to respond to someone’s upset by acting as if you’re the one who was hurt. If you were that wounded then you would have spoken about your upset well before the other person speaks about theirs. It is frustrating to be on the receiving side of this classic distraction technique and it’s incredibly non-relational. 7.    Getting angry about the feedback. Getting mad at someone for telling you how they feel about the way you’re treating them or about something you did, further escalates the issue. Rather than getting angry for being honest with you, start being thankful that they are giving you the opportunity to repair what you did. 8.    Getting wounded by the feedback. Feedback is a gift when and if you’re courageous enough to take it in. Acting like a wounded child because someone has the courage to be honest with you is not serving you in any healthy way. Stop crying about the feedback and start being thankful for it. 9.    Going on a tirade about all the great things you do. You doing a thousand things right does not take away hurtful behavior you did. At that moment, the other person doesn’t care what you did two weeks ago or even ten minutes ago. Deal with the issue at hand and don’t talk about all the other ways you are so wonderful—that approach is really not wonderful. 10.    Refusing to say “I’m sorry”. If you are in the wrong—OWN IT!!! Healthy relationships require apologies—we are ALL imperfect. Making mistakes is a part of being human, however, hiding them, rationalizing them and spinning them around on someone else is toxic.

Overcoming defensiveness takes practice and a willingness to let your guard down. One thing to remember along the journey is that your spouse is not your enemy. You must believe this to overcome!

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