Do You Defend Your Partner’s Defenses? Here's Why You Should
Do you exploit your partner’s vulnerability? Or stand guard over it?
Posted Nov 11, 2015
Although to differing degrees, we all need our psychological defenses. They protect us from experiencing an otherwise unsettling anxiety. Or an ancient sense of inferiority, or shame that may go all the way back to childhood—and that we’ve never managed to fully rectify. So when we talk about getting our buttons pushed, it’s generally about someone’s (however accidentally) triggering these uncomfortable feelings.
In such instances, then, what do you typically do? While the actual motivation behind your adverse reaction is mostly unconscious, almost reflexively you’ll find some way to push back. You’ll attempt to restore your emotional equilibrium by somehow invalidating what’s just been said or done to you. Such self-vindication could be accomplished by justifying yourself, turning whatever your “opponent” said back on them, or finding some way—mentally, emotionally, or physically—of creating greater distance between you and the person who “yanked your chain.”
When you do this, you’re ensuring—or, at least, trying to ensure— that what at least felt like a negative assessment of you doesn’t penetrate to the very depths of your being. Since we all need to feel as good about ourselves as possible, whatever might threaten this (perhaps shaky) positive self-regard will immediately precipitate in you a powerful impulse to refute it.
And, inasmuch as this tendency is universal—unless, that is, you have a really strong, resilient ego—here’s the next thing to consider. And that is: “How well do you understand your partner’s buttons (let alone your own)? What arouses their defenses? What words or actions cause them to resist you? attack you? or stop listening to you? Or even walk away from you?
If your partner (or anyone else, for that matter) gets defensive with you on a fairly regular basis, it’s safe to assume that their act of self-protection follows a particular pattern. So if you want to forge a better, more caring, understanding, and trusting relationship with them, beginning to appreciate where their buttons are located can be invaluable. It makes all kinds of sense to learn how to anticipate what compels them to oppose you. For whether they turn on you, or turn away from you, you can be confident that, at bottom, it’s because something you said hurt their feelings.
But rather than your partner’s simply sharing with you their underlying hurt—and in their (largely unconscious) minds making themselves even more vulnerable to you through such “exposure”—they’re far more likely to get angry and blame you for whatever sentiment you’d just voiced toward them. And if responding angrily isn’t their M.O., they may sulk or physically leave the scene: that is, completely shut you out. Either way the all-important attachment bond between the two of you will have been broken. And you’ll likely feel more upset with them, not less—as, clearly, they now are with you.
To avoid having to repeatedly deal with a situation that, doubtless, must be unpleasant for both of you, it’s key that you figure out your partner’s most sensitive areas—their “soft spots,” as it were. So, reflecting on what you may already know about their emotional wounding from the past, explore the descriptive possibilities below. Might they have become upset with you because what you said stirred up one of their old, but still-stinging, “programs” of insecurity and self-doubt?
Although the following list is fairly lengthy, the items represent just a small sampling of what your words may have brought much too close to the surface for them not to be provoked:
I’m a disappointment.
I’m worthless ( . . . not worthy).
I’m defective ( . . . broken, flawed; looked down upon).
I’m not good enough ( . . . can’t be good enough; hopeless).
I’m stupid ( . . . not smart enough).
I’m unimportant ( . . . don’t matter; not appreciated).
My wants or needs don’t matter.
I don’t deserve love ( . . . respect).
I’m not lovable ( . . . likeable).
I’m made fun of ( . . . ridiculed).
I’m a bad person ( . . . seen as a bad—or shameful—person).
I’m all alone ( . . . not normal; different; don’t fit in).
I can’t be understood.
I don’t deserve to be happy ( . . . deserve to fail; be miserable).
I’m a burden to others ( . . . cause trouble; annoy others).
I can’t be trusted ( . . . trust myself).
I can’t trust my judgment ( . . . perceptions).
I have to be perfect ( . . . please everyone).
I can’t stand up for myself ( . . . set limits on others).
I’m helpless ( . . . can’t protect myself).
It’s not safe to tell the truth.
I’m not safe ( . . . in danger; feel trapped).
It’s not safe [or it’s weak or stupid] to have feelings ( . . . or share feelings).
One of my favorite quotes on committed relationships is from famed couples therapist Harville Hendrix. It goes like this: “In an ideal relationship, each partner is the guardian of the other’s vulnerability.” And what these richly meaningful words imply is that in such a union:
(1) each party feels free to express (rather than defensively hide) their vulnerability, because
(2) the other can be counted upon to respond with empathy, compassion, and understanding.
And this is what I mean by “defending your partner’s defenses.” Think about it. What could be more fundamental to establishing relational trust and intimacy than making deep, personal sharing totally safe and protected? After all, if you don’t feel at liberty to openly confide in your partner, how emotionally close can your relationship possibly be?
Here are a couple of crucial things to keep in mind:
Don’t bring up, or respond to, topics with your partner that, if you think about it, represent “sore spots” for them. Not that they should stay sore spots forever. For we all have a certain responsibility—both to ourselves and others—to work through areas of special sensitivity, or reactivity, that limit the fullest expression of ourselves, particularly in relationships.
Still, to the extent that your partner remains vulnerable to messages that remind them of ways they felt bad about themselves in the past, we owe them the kindness and respect to refrain from addressing anything that might feel like a “frontal assault” to them. Passive-aggressive behavior, too (e.g., giving them “the silent treatment,” as their parents may have), can also open up old wounds. So we need to take special care to deal with our partner frustrations without emotionally "re-wounding" them.
The other thing that needs to be considered is that many times it’s not possible to foresee what would be emotionally hurtful to our partner. This is when it’s crucial to repair (on the fly, as it were) the harm that your words or actions may accidentally have caused them. And here's where my list of negative self-beliefs, which so many of us secretly harbor, could be of substantial practical use.
If your partner seems, unjustifiably, to be overreacting to you, instead of negatively countering their possibly exaggerated reaction, can you take a deep breath and ask yourself what they may have heard you say—vs. the probably more innocuous message you meant to convey? And if—as I’m recommending— you gently inquire as to what made them so upset with you, could you suggest what you believe may have disturbed them? And here you need to speak tentatively, so as to minimize the chance that they’ll feel pejoratively “psychoanalyzed.” Give them the final authority to tell you what—or at least what they thought—was so upsetting about your communication.
It can hardly be overemphasized how crucial it is that you ask them about their negative experience compassionately, rather than critically. For you can be sure that they’ll respond more to your tone of voice and facial expression than to your words. They need to “get” that you’re truly on their side, that you want to help them feel better by genuinely—and empathically—grasping the nature of their distress. Finally, it’s essential that you validate whatever they say to you. You don’t have to agree with it, but you do have to see their reaction as “reasonable” on the basis of their past experience and (thus derived) viewpoint.
If you focus on what you can do to alleviate their anger, anxiety, or sorrow, rather than on your own annoyance that they’ve taken what you said “all wrong,” you’ll find that you’re now empowered to resolve the impasse between you. By holding your fire and identifying with their so-personal agitation, you’ll have managed to strengthen the bond between you— rather than, unwittingly, further weaken it.
NOTE 1: If you found this post in any way illuminating, I hope you’ll pass its link on to others.
NOTE 2: I’ve written many other posts on relationships that in various ways complement this one. If you’d like to explore them, here are some titles and links:
NOTE 3: If you’d like to check out my writings for Psychology Today generally—on a broad array of psychological topics—click here.
© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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