Have Your Defenses Become Your Prison?

The most common defense response patterns in intimate adult relationships.

Posted Feb 28, 2018

Most people respond defensively when they feel attacked. It is a natural self-protective maneuver learned very early in life to ward off potential harm.  

If children are in constant fear of punishment when they’ve done something their caretakers feel deserves it, they master whatever strategies they can to get out of those anxiety-ridden corners. If they do not explore and remodel those initial responses, they are likely to grow up to be adults who are so expectant of emotional attack that they have walled themselves off from intimacy.    

Without the healing that quality intimacy provides, those protective walls thicken over time and those people who once found safety within them often see relationship partners as likely to hurt them, and continually test them by continuing to respond defensively to any perceived emotional challenge.  

As they continue to fuel their defensive behaviors, their walls become thicker, imprisoning them within. Over time, they are in danger of becoming locked into an impenetrable emotional fortress, waiting and hoping that they will find the one person who will pass their test.

For any new trust or potential love to thrive, these self-entrapped people must be willing to explore how and when their defenses began and commit to dropping their self-defeating emotional armor. From that new awareness, they can create relationships in which those automatic defensive strategies are no longer necessary.  

How Defensive Walls Begin

Recall that defenses are normal and legitimate ways to protect oneself from a perceived attack and that children learn them early in life when they are powerless to ward off or neutralize aggressive challenges. Their caretakers have the power to do whatever they wish to them, forcing the child to shield as best as he or she can.  Not given an even playing field, that child learns to defend as best as possible under the circumstances.

It is common to hear children learn phrases like: “I didn’t mean to.” “It wasn’t my fault.” “I promise I won’t do it again.” “You didn’t tell me I couldn’t do that.” “I don’t remember.” “Please don’t be mad at me.” “I didn’t do it.” Those kinds of responses are helpless attempts to change the mind of the all-powerful “minister of consequences.” If that child can find a reasonable excuse, justify his or her actions, or divert from the situation, the feared punishment might be alleviated.

If their origins are not understood, those early impotent defenses manifest into more sophisticated ones later in life. When that happens, these now adult partners, when challenged, may inadvertently see their current partners as symbolic of the powerful people they succumbed to in their childhoods. Very rapidly, the subsequent fears will activate the walls they needed as children. but will now keep love away.

If you are a person who rapidly defends whenever challenged, you have denied yourself the open exploration of thoughts and feelings that successful relationship partners practice. It has had to have been frustrating and painful for you. But you can change these self-destructive patterns and learn a new way of responding even when you feel unfairly criticized. First, you must identify your own defensive patterns. Second, you must learn alternative ways to react to replace them. The following two sections will give you help with both.

Section One: The Five Most Common Defense Response Patterns in Intimate Adult Relationships

Though there are many forms of defensive interactions, they all have the goal of invalidating the other partner’s reality or validity. When that happens, the possibility of quality communication and mutual support are destroyed.

The following five are the most common. I have often watched these intimacy-destructive interactions. The couples engrossed in them do not seem to realize how harmful they actually are or what the outcome will be if they continue. It often takes multiple interventions before most couples can not only see what they are doing but to actually stop these hurtful, defensive responses.

1) Character Assassinations

These are needing-to-win-at-any-cost defenses. One partner tries to get the other to doubt his or her basic value or right to have an opinion.  The defense is often expressed as a wipe-out statement like “You never listen,” insults like “You can’t hear anyone but yourself,” invalidations like “What makes you think I would believe you?” or low-blow attacks like “You’ve told me over and over that you can’t remember anything I say, so why would I waste my time telling you again?”

Character challenges feel like emotional assassinations to the other partner and most often result in similar counter-attacks. A person who is defending his or her very core of value is going to fight back hard, give up, or disconnect.

2) Diverting

This defense manifests as an attempt to throw the perceived attacker off the mark. The person defending may use minimizing responses like “You are making such a big deal over nothing,” or attempt to change the subject to one in which they feel more legitimate, such as “We should really be talking about something more important here that will get us somewhere.” Many defenders divert by flipping the challenge like “Well, what about you? You do the exact same thing, only worse.”

3) Intimidation

When fearful of being erased, many defenders will try to intimidate the other partner. There are many ways of doing that. One is to invalidate like “What makes you think you know so much about this? Your argument is really weak and I just don’t buy it.”

Another would be to use others to beef up the defense like “Everyone we know agrees with me about my feelings here. They’ve all told me that you are wrong.”

When all else fails, many defenders will escalate their outrage or anger. “I’m really getting sick of this. Keep going and I’m not going to be able to stay nice.”

4) Feigned giving in to neutralize the attacker

Many people think that this is primarily a female response, but that is not so. Both men and women use it frequently, though more women may do so to get support and more men to just end the conflict. It most often shows up as exaggerating one’s own fault to get the other to support. “Okay. I’m wrong. I concede. Maybe my ideas were just not worth talking about. Let’s just stop.” Or, “I can’t ever get my point across. You always end up more convincing, so I’m just going to see it your way.”

These defenses are used to get the other partner to look at his or her own “unfair” attacks, or to feel guilty for causing the other partner to feel defeated. They often result in that other partner offering to let the other person win.

5) Justifying

People most often use this defense when they feel they are on a witness stand. They feel as if they are on trial, needing to get the challenging partner to change his or her mind, to feel that the attack is unfair, so he or she will back down.

This defense strategy is a clear admission that the other partner has the power and must somehow be taught to use it more “justly,” i.e., to support the other’s position and to give up the attack. It can take the form of a “legitimate” excuse such as: “I truly meant to be there on time but your mother called and she demanded that I listen to her.” “I couldn’t get home tonight on time. You know how hard it is for me to predict what my boss will ask at the last minute.”

Or, coming up with an exception to the attack: “You keep telling me that I never help you, but remember when I cleaned out that whole back room a couple of months ago?”

Or falling back on the most legitimate defense, justifying: “I have every reason to do what I did. I’ve told you over and over that, I try my best, and you keep finding fault no matter how hard I try.”

Section Two - Tearing Your Defensive Walls Down

If you truly want to break out of your self-imposed prison, you’ll need to drop your defenses and adopt a better way of communicating your needs. The following five responses will go a long way towards that goal.

1) Stopping Rip Tides

When both partners are attacking, defending, and counter-attacking and defending, in ever-escalating rounds of miscommunication, there is no way for either person to listen or be listened to in return. Only one person can listen at a time for either to feel totally understood. Listening, exploring, and understanding another’s point of view does not automatically require agreement on the topic at hand.

2) Letting Go of Hubris

Hubris means a false pride, a somewhat arrogant stance that comes across as cocky self-confidence. It is a predictable self-defeating stance when intimate and humble connection is the goal.

Whatever description or commentary someone you love tells you anything about yourself, even if it is hard to listen to or delivered without diplomacy, there will always be a kernel of truth that may help you see yourself in a new way. Try to separate out your need to erase or invalidate what your partner is saying even if it doesn’t initially feel right. It might be a new way of looking at yourself that could open doors to knowing more about how you function in that relationship.

3) Resiliency

Though the search for how to increase happiness seems still somewhat out of reach, recent research tells us that we can increase resiliency our resiliency. Learning to tame reactivity and to stand tall on the other end of a challenge is something everyone can learn to do better. When people are defending, they are wearing a bulls-eye tee-shirt that every statement hits without filters. It’s not that hard to let things go by and examine them from a new perspective. You can always challenge those statements later.

4) Searching for bigger truths

Holding onto biases, prejudices, and condemnations, even if they once served to protect you is a sure way to keep your prison walls intact. Other people can often see things we can’t and, if both partners deliver their observations with compassion, kindness, and diplomacy, they can offer a mutual search for new truths that can enhance any relationship.

Instead of continuing to feed and solidify limited thinking, both partners do whatever they can to learn new ways of seeing themselves and the other.  

5) Learning neutralizing statements

At the other end of a perceived attack, people can learn to come back with responses that cannot only calm that attack but actually transform it into a more positive expression. Here are some examples of those kinds of responses.

“That’s a little hard to hear, but I want to. Give me some examples.”

“You’re really upset and coming at me with guns flaring. I can hear you better if you can deliver this in a calmer way. Can you?”

“I have a different version of what happened. Do you want to go first and then I’ll go second, or the other way around?”

“That statement really hurts. If you can help me understand where you’re going with this, I can listen better.”

“Can you help me understand what has happened between us that is making you respond this way?”

“I can’t hear what you need me to because of the way you’re saying it, and I want to. Can you present it with less need to blame me? I want to get this, but my defenses are getting in the way.”

                                                             * * * * *

Your goal is to get those prison walls down and learn to take and give critiques in ways that expand your mutual trust and comfort with each other.

When you are upset with any behaviors that you need to resolve, you can consciously resist defending and learn to explore and listen as your first response. Though dropping emotional armor is not an easy thing to practice, those who do so feel a lightness of being they had not known before.