By: Rachel Goldsmith, AMFT, MS

We have mentioned the work of Dr. John Gottman before on the Symmetry Counseling blog. Dr. Gottman has extensively researched what makes some romantic relationships happy and lasting and others miserable and doomed to end, and he has identified four behaviors that can actually predict the demise of a relationship. If they occur often enough, criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness can erode a relationship so much that it ends.

Today, let’s discuss defensiveness and how to identify whether or not this is a way you engage with your partner. We all know what it means to be defensive, and it is something each of us has done in our lives. When we feel vulnerable, attacked, or threatened in our relationship, one way to handle it is to find excuses, rationalize our actions, or deflect the problem off of ourselves and onto our partner. In our romantic relationships, however, the message it sends to your partner is, “I’m not interested in your point of view, and let me tell you why you should drop it,” or “I didn’t do anything wrong, you did!” Turning the tables on your partner like this creates distance rather than closeness, making it hard to move on in any productive, meaningful way.

The first step to making your relationship better is simply by identifying where the weak spots are and making meaningful changes. Below are 6 signs that you might be acting defensively toward your partner when in conflict. If you notice yourself doing some of these things, recognize it as an area for improvement – and stay tuned for an up-coming post about how to handle your defensiveness and create some alternative actions for yourself.

  1. You are planning your next “move” when your partner is speaking. Rather than listening, you notice that you are actually strategizing what to say next, almost like a chess player lines up her next move during her opponent’s turn. You cannot really remember what your partner said or his or her emotions as it was said. Your partner may even say something like, “You’re not listening to me!” This is a good sign that you are taking a defensive stance.
  2. You get more extreme in your viewpoint as the conversation unfolds. Defensiveness leads people to form more and more extreme, polarized viewpoints as time goes by. On some level, we think it will further support our point to be more extreme about whatever it is we think is true, but it actually only makes us hard to connect with.
  3. You often begin your statements with “Yes, but…” When we use the words like “but,” “however,” or “although” it can be a way of defending ourselves rather than accepting someone else’s viewpoint even if it conflicts with our own.
  4. Your partner gets defensive, extreme, and polarized as well. Chances are that if you are being defensive, your partner will follow suit. It is difficult to be in a conversation with someone who is being defensive and not also get defensive yourself. If you see that your partner gets more and more polarized and defensive as you talk, perhaps it is a sign that you are also being defensive.
  5. Your feel it in your body. Think about how your body feels when you are physically threatened. How does that feel? Perhaps you clench your jaw, your palms sweat, your heart races, or your face gets hot. These same physical cues can occur when we are being defensive in our conflict with our loved ones.
  6. You want/try to get the last word. If you cannot let a conversation end without making a final (perhaps even nasty) comment, then that is a sign that you are being somewhat defensive. The point of getting the last word is often not out of wanting to connect or repair with your partner, but it is usually about making sure the other person knows that you are right and they are wrong. This is defensive and probably not a wise way to relate to your loved one.