Are you not feeling heard? Is your partner defensive?

Defensiveness in a relationship can manifest in various ways, and it often occurs when one or both partners feel attacked, criticised, or misunderstood. Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert, has extensively researched and written about the destructive nature of defensiveness in relationships.

Here are some examples of defensive behaviours in a relationship:

1.     Denial of Responsibility: When one partner refuses to take responsibility for their actions, they might respond defensively by denying any wrongdoing. For example, if Partner A says, “You never help with the housework,” and Partner B responds with, “I do help, you just don’t notice,” they are deflecting responsibility.

2.     Counterattacking: This involves responding to a partner’s complaint or criticism with a counter-criticism. For instance, if Partner A says, “You were rude to me in front of our friends,” and Partner B responds with, “Well, you embarrassed me last week,” they are not addressing the issue but deflecting blame.

3.     Playing the Victim: Someone might play the victim card by making themselves the target of sympathy rather than addressing their partner’s concerns. For instance, if Partner A expresses frustration about being ignored, and Partner B responds with, “I can never do anything right; you’re always mad at me,” they are avoiding accountability.

4.     Explaining and Justifying: Instead of acknowledging their actions or mistakes, a defensive partner may launch into a lengthy explanation or justification for their behaviour. This can make the other partner feel unheard or invalidated.

5.     Cross-Complaining: When one partner responds to a complaint with another complaint, it creates a cycle of unproductive communication. For example, if Partner A says, “You didn’t call me when you said you would,” and Partner B responds with, “Well, you forgot to pick up the groceries yesterday,” it leads to further frustration.

Dr. John Gottman’s research suggests that defensiveness is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” in relationships, which are behaviours that can predict the demise of a partnership if left unaddressed. He emphasises the importance of recognising and addressing defensiveness because it often escalates conflicts rather than resolving them.

To overcome defensiveness, Dr. Gottman recommends several strategies:

1.     Take a Break: If you feel yourself becoming defensive, it’s okay to take a break from the conversation. This can help you cool down and collect your thoughts before responding.

2.     Active Listening: Make an effort to truly listen to your partner’s perspective without interrupting or immediately offering a counter-argument. Validate their feelings and experiences.

3.     Use “I” Statements: Instead of saying, “You make me feel this way,” express your feelings with “I” statements like, “I feel hurt when this happens.” This approach is less accusatory and encourages understanding.

4.     Accept Responsibility: When you make a mistake, acknowledge it and apologise. Taking responsibility for your actions can defuse defensiveness and open the door to productive communication.

5.     Seek Compromise: Work together to find solutions to issues rather than engaging in a blame game. Compromise and collaboration can help build a healthier relationship.

In summary, defensiveness in a relationship is a counterproductive response to conflict that can lead to further problems. Dr. John Gottman’s research emphasises the importance of addressing and mitigating defensiveness to maintain a healthy and successful partnership.