Robin Saffir

All couples fight— in fact, the process of rupture and repair can actually be strength building. The key as to whether an argument or difficult conversation makes a pair stronger lies in HOW a couple fights.

Maladaptive Disagreement Strategies: Defense Mechanisms

Common defense mechanisms employed in arguments include (but are not limited to):

  • Acting out: performing a behavior in order to express a thought or emotion that may otherwise feel too difficult to express. (ex: punching a wall as an expression of anger)
  • Denial: refusal to accept the truth in what your partner is attempting to communicate
  • Displacement: taking out your feelings on another person, not the object of your negative feelings. (ex: feeling shame and anger towards yourself for behaviors being brought up in an argument but responding to your partner with anger in a shaming way)
  • Projection: misattribution of your own traits onto your partner (ex: expressing anger towards your partner for not listening when perhaps you are not hearing and implementing what your partner is communicating with you). Projection often occurs when a person lacks insight into his or her own motivations, behaviors, and the ways in which his/her actions impact his/her partner
  • Rationalization: inappropriately offering an alternate explanation aka making excuses (ex: “I only lied to you because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings”)
  • Regression: reverting to coping mechanisms used in an earlier stage of development (ex: an expression of emotion that may be resemble a child’s tantrum)
  • Repression: unconsciously blocking out or pushing down negative thoughts and feelings (ex: refusing to, or being unable to, discuss or acknowledge your feelings and emotional response within an argument)

Becoming defensive or defended against what one’s partner is trying to convey can have a lasting negative impact. Not only can if leave one partner feeling unheard, misunderstood, and even unimportant, it can impede the defensive partner’s opportunity for growth. When we employ our defense mechanisms we are unable to be fully present in an experience. For example, anger can sometimes be a defended reaction. Have you ever had the experience when a loved one says “it hurt my feelings when x happened because it made me feel y” and your automatic emotional response was anger? If so, that’s okay! AND, understand that this may be a defended response. To have an anger response to a loved one expressing hurt or pain reveals information about oneself. It is likely that in that moment, to fully, consciously, emotionally accept that we contributed to this loved one’s upset is just too much to handle. Maybe you don’t define yourself as someone capable of causing the type or level of pain your partner is expressing. Maybe to acknowledge that your partner is so deeply hurting would mean you would have to acknowledge something deeper within yourself: perhaps shame or fear. Unfortunately, to meet your partner with defensiveness, especially when he/she is expressing pain, sadness, fear and/or vulnerability is a maladaptive coping and disagreement strategy. Not only does this tactic limit your opportunity to learn about the ways in which your actions impact and feel to another person, but it can often leave the hurt partner feeling unimportant, unheard, and unmet in his/her vulnerability.