By: Jennine Estes, M.A., IMF
Defensive behavior is one of
the leading causes of on-going painful conflicts within a
relationship, the type which can lead to long term damage.
Defensive behavior sends the message to your partner that their
experiences and ideas are wrong, and that you are in the right.
However, as you may have seen, in these situations, a well meaning
defense can quickly turn into a battle where each side is unwilling
to give in.
The Communication Battle Attack: History is full of those
moments when a true defense was necessary. In romantic medieval
times, when a person was attacked, they defended themselves. They
pulled out their armor, a shield and sword, and prepared to do
battle. This response was due their desire to protect their own
safety. Thinking back to the previous situation, when during an
interchange if your partner is in a defensive position, it is
generally because they don't feel safe and possibly feel attacked.
This leads them to put on their armor for their own protection, and
then pick up their own sword and attack. This situation is what I
call a "Communication Battle." Situations such as these break down
the family unit and place the combatants on opposing sides, fighting
against each other in a vicious pattern, one that creates little
Defensive behaviors can also be a sign of deeper communication
issues. Sometimes, no matter how carefully someone addresses an
issue with you, you automatically go into defense mode. This common
response is often learned at a young age; when tough situations
arise, each of us naturally reacts in a certain way. This reaction
becomes a crutch to help us through situations where we need help
coping with our own insecurities. However, we often become dependant
on our crutches, and choose to keep them around far longer than they
are actually needed. If this sounds like you, it will take more of
an effort to remove the crutch and change this behavior.
Defensive Behaviors, like many common communication issues often
become exacerbated by poor communication skills. In relationships,
it is often easier to point out how your partner needs to change
than to work as a team to confront the issue together. The most
important thing to remember in this situation is that people change
when they want to, not when we want them to.
The key to creating change in unhealthy communication patterns is to
create a supportive environment, where both partners are working to
communicate effectively. This places responsibility on both
partners, allowing each to have a stake in the outcome.
Relationships are like a baby mobile, if you tug on one side,
everything changes. If you shift your behavior, your partner will
automatically have to shift their behavior in response. Make sure
you move in the right direction, allowing you partner's behavior to
move in the same way. All this change is often overwhelming, placing
us in situations where we once again start to rely on our safe,
comfortable, old crutches. However, no movement can happen if we
continually rely on our crutches for support. It may be time to
remember how to walk on your own again, leaving the crutches behind.
Leaving the crutches behind is not easy, but do not fear, it can be
done. Learning to walk unaided again takes a lot of willingness and
self exploration, topics which a therapist can assist you with. In
my practice, I foster a collaborative exploration in which I ask
directing questions; questions which require you to look deep
inside, and determine what your crutches are.
Quick Tips to Deal with Defensive Behaviors:
• Keep track of how often you get defensive, use a notebook so an
accurate record is kept. What did you say? How was your tone of
voice? What was your body language saying? Keeping track helps you
become more aware of your own behaviors. Awareness is Key in
creating change in life.
• Next time you begin feeling attacked, don't surrender, withdraw,
or attack back. Instead of becoming defensive try to understand
where your partner is coming from. Ask meaningful questions about
how they feel, and express how you feel.
• Start Individual or couples counseling. You can gain insight and a
larger understanding of where this and other negative behaviors come
from, why they happen, and how to decrease them.
• Experiment with trying something different. Next time you notice
yourself becoming defensive, try doing something different. Notice
how your partner reacts. Does he/she react differently? Where they
less or more reactive? Look for the smallest change, because changes
start small. Remember the mobile, and remember that each change will
bring about more changes.
• Of course, no one can be completely rid of their own defensive
behaviors; however, we can always decrease our reactivity to create
a safe and caring environment for our partner. The safer
(emotionally) it is for your partner, the safer your partner will
make it for you. They will follow by example.
For more information visit
Therapy, Jennine Estes - Individual, premarital, couples counseling,
anxiety, addiction, anger management
Jennine Estes, M.A.
Marriage and Family Therapist
Registered Intern, IMF#47211
Supervised by Mark Kaupp, MFC#33213