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Taking Responsibility Is Hard, but Essential for Couples

Partners who are closed to feedback will not change and may be doing damage.

Key points

  • Defensiveness includes an unwillingness to accept responsibility or hear feedback.
  • Chronic defensiveness is a predictor of relationship failure and is a feature of many abusive interactions.
  • Being open to others is the path to relationship growth.
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When your partner suggests a change, do you shift into a defensive posture? If you won’t hear them or attack back, you are being defensive. This also occurs when you overstate victimization or only see your partner as the problem. Defensiveness can include whining, exaggerated indignation, blame, complaining, or distraction.

Chronic defensiveness prevents growth and change and is a predictor of divorce and relationship failure. Although it is important to be open to feedback and change, it is hard. Nobody likes being accused or attacked, and we naturally protect ourselves. Of course, we get irked when our partner points out our failings, but when defensiveness becomes habitual and unyielding, it’s a problem. Abusive individuals often demonstrate extreme versions of defensiveness by rejecting feedback, blaming others, downplaying the impact of their hurtful actions, changing the topic, or claiming they are being victimized by being held accountable. One woman I worked with responded to any concern from her husband by saying he was “being controlling.” If he asked for help with the kids, brought up a concern, or requested snuggles, she bristled and told him to back off. She had an instant defense mode triggered by his approach.

Lowering the Shield

Some people generate thick steel defenses because they have been hurt or bullied. If you need a shield to protect from verbal or physical abuse, then you should seek additional help, and the defenses are understandable.

However, walls that spring up at minor threats or remain in place after the threat is gone do damage. Healthy partners lower their shields and resist impulses to fight or flee. Partners need to call a truce and soothe each other after things have gotten tense. Even if an initial confrontation resulted in claws extending, these can be retracted, and partners can calm back down and shake hands.

When you feel defenses rising, it’s time to check in with yourself. Are you resisting your partner’s opinions? Are you having a hard time because you don’t agree? Can you listen anyway? Would it help to ask for a peaceful negotiation?

Lowering defenses allows people to reconnect and grow. One of the many great things about love is when you get close to someone, you get challenged. You bump up against other views, and you learn more about your own weaknesses. Hearing feedback takes vulnerability and trust but is an opportunity to learn. Do you want to know how you come across, what you do that your spouse appreciates, and what they don’t? Do you want to grow closer?

Couples who thrive discuss concerns and then try again. When one says, “It isn’t OK for you to talk to me that way,” it's a chance to smooth out rough edges and get better. Each has different views and strengths, and these combine to make a partnership that is greater than the sum of the parts. If both are the same, then one is unnecessary. Partners who open up and share with each other grow into something better.

A former client, Aaron* learned this the hard way. He married Dayna* when they were young, and he had a difficult time when she challenged his views. He had a sarcastic, hyper-manly approach to the relationship. When Dayna asked him to help with the baby or in the kitchen, he would scoff or ignore her. His attitude towards domestic duties could be summed up as: “Screw that.” He was jealous of his still-partying friends who were living lifestyles incompatible with a committed marriage. And although he was a funny guy with a lot of energy, after a few years, Dayna calmly announced that she was taking their daughter and leaving.

Aaron was stunned, and to his credit, began a serious examination of his dismissive attitude. He agreed to marital therapy (“harder than a root canal”), and for the first time, looked at how his walls and selective attention to Dayna’s concerns had shut her out. He realized he had been in a selfish mode, focusing on how hard he was working and what he had sacrificed to get married. This kept him from hearing or appreciating Dayna’s experiences with the baby, and it started a bad cycle of her withholding affection to cope with his neglect. He realized that she felt alone and dismissed and protected herself by creating her own defenses.

After the crisis, they began conversations about what they each needed. Dayna became more assertive in speaking up for herself, and Aaron tried to be accommodating and honest about his feelings. As they each increased their commitment to each other, the walls came down and the relationship grew into a healthy connection in which both could share, and both could hear.

*name changed


Jason Whiting. Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive In Relationships. Cedar Fort.

John M Gottman, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples, (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011),

Stephen W. Porges, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company, 2011.

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