Why Do People Get So Defensive?
And what you can do about it.
Posted May 15, 2018 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Defensiveness is a serious problem. According to John Gottman, it’s one of four patterns—criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling—that lead to divorce.
Defensiveness is also very frustrating. You may feel this when you’re trying to make a point, and it seems like your partner isn’t really listening to you.
Maybe they’re too busy explaining that you misunderstood.
Or clarifying their intentions.
Or making excuses.
Or saying you caused it.
Or saying you do it too.
Or pointing out something else you do wrong.
This kind of defensiveness is a bad habit. It needs to change. And, luckily, there’s a simple way to do that. I’ll tell you how in a minute.
But first, there’s a different problem to discuss. It’s the one on the other side.
Defensiveness is often a response to criticism. The worst-case scenario would be if your criticism led to their defensiveness. And now their defensiveness is leading back to your next criticism. Which will lead to their next defense.
This can happen all too easily. In a few minutes, defensiveness and criticism can escalate, and turn into contempt and stonewalling. That’s not good.
A cycle like this can go on indefinitely—for weeks, months, or years. Couples who bicker constantly can be this cycle for decades. That’s not a happy life.
You want to nip this pattern in the bud. If you don’t like your partner’s defensiveness, make sure that you’re not causing it by being critical.
How do you do this?
First, when you need to talk about a problem, make a soft start. Don’t “blow them out of the water” to get their attention. Don’t initiate the conversation with an abrupt, loud, or angry remark. Instead, use a soft tone, say that you want to talk, and ask “When would be a good time?” Get their consent. Make an appointment. Wait till then.
Second, figure out how to turn your criticism into a request. Criticisms are about the past; requests are about the future. Criticisms are about negatives; requests are about positives. Shift from a past negative to a future positive.
For instance, instead of the criticism, “You never lock the door!” you could use the request, “For the next week, would you be sure to lock the door every day?”
You’ll figure out what they could do, going forward, that would help. You’ll be addressing the solution, not just the problem. When you make a request like this, people are much less likely to be defensive.
Now, I’ll tell you the cure for defensiveness. It’s a great method to put into practice. It really works well. If you choose to do it, things will go better, and you’ll be happier.
It's pretty easy to do yourself. But it might not be so easy to teach this to someone else—even if they need to learn it. Sometimes the teaching process becomes a fight.
This method is good to do, easy to model, hard to teach. Maybe it would be best to start by just doing it yourself.
The cure for defensiveness is to find some part of a request or criticism that you can honestly take some responsibility for. And talk about that first.
You might not agree with all of it. But find some part of it that you can acknowledge in good faith. Address that part first. Stay on that topic until your partner experiences some relief. Don't shift to other parts too soon.
As an example, If my wife says, “You’re working too many hours, like you always do.” I shouldn’t say Response 1: “Well, I wouldn’t have to work so late, if you’d do more." I should say Response 2: “That’s true, honey, I have been working late.”
Response 1 leads to a fight. Response 2 doesn’t lead to a fight. Response 1 is defending and turning-around. Response 2 is acknowledging some part of the criticism.
In summary, if your partner’s too defensive, make sure you’re not being too critical. The cure for defensiveness is taking responsibility for some part of the criticism. The cure for criticism is soft starts, and turning criticisms into requests.
If you two are caught in a criticism/defensiveness cycle, you might want to look at our book Love Cycles, Fear Cycles to learn how to get out of this cycle.
Gottman, J. M. (1994). What Predicts Divorce? L. Erlbaum, USA.
Woodsfellow, D. & Woodsfellow, D. (2018). Love Cycles, Fear Cycles. SelectBooks, NY.