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Destructive Communication Patterns: Defensiveness

We will continue our look the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the destructive communication patterns that couples employ during conflict and are consistent predictors of divorce. The four horsemen are: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Today we’ll explore the unhealthy communication pattern of Defensiveness. The definition of defensiveness is stating one’s complaints as a defect in their partner’s personality, usually delivering the complaint with judgement and blame.

Defensiveness is self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that its perceived effect is blame. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.

Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late, it’s your fault.”

Antidote: “Well, you’re right. Part of this is my problem – I need to do a better job managing my time.”

We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel accused unjustly, we fish for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, or are trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, or are blowing them off.

She: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
He: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

He not only responds defensively, but turns the tables and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been:

“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now.”

Although it is perfectly understandable for the male to defend himself in this example, his approach doesn’t have the desired effect.

The good news is that couples can learn to label these patterns and build in their antidotes. Labeling and stopping destructive communication patterns can be hard to practice on your own. If you need more guidance with improving communication patterns, consider couples therapy with a therapist trained in the Gottman Method.