By: Rachel Goldsmith, AMFT, MS

We recently discussed ways to identify whether or not you are defensive in your relationship with your romantic partner. If you saw yourself in some of those descriptions and recognize that you are consistently being defensive with your partner, what are some steps you can take toward shifting that behavior into something more productive?

A first important step, beyond employing practical strategies, is to understand why you are being defensive in the first place. Often, a maneuver like becoming defensive gets employed when you sense that you are somehow being threatened. In romantic relationships, sometimes we misperceive our partner’s comments as being harsh and critical when really, they were just making a benign comment and we are just a little to sensitive. We take a defensive posture to protect ourselves from the perceived threat. Other times, our partners are being critical, and we take out the proverbial sword and fight back. The important thing to realize is that no matter what, getting defensive is not going to help the situation or address the real problem at hand.

After you have some insight into what leads you to become defensive, you can try to employ some alternative actions to replace your defensive ones. Read on for some straightforward strategies that you can try today to curb your defensiveness and bring more closeness and collaboration into your relationship.

  1. Just listen. When being defensive, we often stop listening to our partner because we are too busy strategizing our next “move” in the argument. Make a very concerted effort to actually listen to what your partner is saying to you, enough so that you could repeat what he or she said. This will help you stop focusing on how you can pin the problem on your partner when he or she is actually communicating something important!
  2. Take three breaths before saying anything. If you know that you can tend to be defensive when confronted or in a conflict with your partner, try to take three deep breaths before speaking. Putting time between what you hear and what you say can keep you from saying something you will later regret.
  3. Reflect what you hear before you make any other statements. Rather than quickly saying, “Well you always forget to take the dog out, so why are you mad at me for forgetting to do it this once?” try to first repeat to your partner what you heard him or her say. Perhaps it is something like, “I get that you are mad that I did not take out the dog today.” Try it and see what happens. Chances are both you and your partner will cool down enough to have a more productive conversation.
  4. Stand in your partner’s shoes. Even if you really feel as though your partner has wronged you or he or she really did criticize you, make it your job in those moments to still try to understand his or her point of view. Being defensive will not help even if these kinds of moments. During the time that you take some deep breaths, envision yourself inside your partner’s experience and try to see the situation from that point of view rather than your own.
  5. Remember the tennis metaphor. In the game of tennis, your goal is to make it so that your opponent cannot return the ball to your side of the court. You want to be the last one to make an effective move. In your relationship, the goal is exactly the opposite. You and your partner, even if you find yourselves on the opposite side of the net, should try to communicate to one another in ways that increases the chances that he or she can toss a message over the net and back to you, and vice versa. Do not try to out-maneuver your partner, shut him or her down, or try to win the “match.” Continue the volley of your conversation with questions, interest in his or her viewpoint, and empathy.
  6. Accept responsibility. Or at least some of it. When we get defensive, it sends the message to our partner that they are to blame and not us. This attitude will not get you far in terms of solving the problem and moving past it. The key change that needs to happen is that both you and your partner need to be able to accept some responsibility for whatever problem has come up. Take ownership of at least some part of the problem rather than immediately getting defensive. Chances are, if you do that, you both will be able to feel closer to one another, problem solve effectively, and move past the issue.