Help: My spouse gets really defensive…What do I do?

April 5, 2009 · Print This Article

angry-couple Defensiveness is one of the four toxins in communication, however; it is a common toxin found in almost all marriages. Happily married couples have less of the toxin than do couples who eventually divorce. The challenge is reducing your spouses defensiveness.

Watch defensive interactions:[youtube][/youtube]

Typically, a defensive response (words or action) suggests “wait a minute, slow down; I’m not with you on this; I don’t agree.” Defensive responses are common and normal in an argument or disagreement, in fact, it is associated with a healthy sense of self. Imagine a world where everyone agreed with everyone all the time. I purpose that would be boring as all can be.

Defensiveness is like traffic signals in a discussion: stop, proceed with caution, or go forward with what you are doing. Typically, defensiveness means proceed with caution. Responding to defensiveness in a manner that is de-escalating and soothing makes the difference. If defensiveness is increasing in the discussion, it is likely that it is being fueled (not all the time) but most of the time. There are some cases where a person is simply defensive all the time as a personality trait. This is rare. The majority of the time in marriages, when a couple is “chronically” in defend-attack mode, it is a result of ongoing toxic communication patterns and neither is slamming on the breaks to supply the much needed antidote. Defensiveness can also be delivered in a sweet sounding package, like a warm, nice tone of voice.  Any response that is essentially a “Yes, but” is a defensive response no matter how it is delivered.

How to respond to defensiveness?  Roll with it.

That’s right. Roll with it. Sound to simple? It is extremely difficult. There are two options; five second delay or agree with what is agreeable (Gottman, 2005).

If you are a man reading this, research has shown that if you wait five seconds before responding, you will likely be less defensive.  Only FIVE seconds!!

Look at your watch and time five seconds. It sounds like a short period of time, but in what I call “relationship time” it seems like eternity.

Try it as an experiment next time the tension is rising.

Either men or woman can do the second experiment. Find something in the points that your partner is making with which you agree or  make sense and then stop (temporarily).

For example:  “I really hear your points on this one. There are a couple I really agree with such as…” OR “I never thought of it from that angle. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.”

Then STOP –  Do not “BUT” and then begin stating your points.

Instead, elicit more information from your partner. “Do you have any other thoughts on this issue?”

Hear your partners points all the way through. Be patient. Avoid sounding sarcastic with the above. Your turn comes after you thoroughly understand your partner. After your partners turn, open with, “OK. I am wondering if you can hear my points on this issue and tell me what you agree with. We can argue the points of contention later. Let’s just find some common ground for starters – OK?”

Right now, if there is a defensiveness you are feeling when you read this (IE: “sounds like psychobabble, no one talks that way, I could never do that, my spouse would laugh their head off, my partner would never believe me if I did that, I am not giving in like that to him/her, my partner would never respond to me”) it means that you are entrenched in your position in the argument with your partner- which likely means the issue is very, very important to you and you may believe that by experimenting with the “Roll with it” you are somehow conceding or giving up. I assure you, that is not the case. I implore you to maintain your expectations and to argue for what you want. I am suggesting that how you are arguing is not working for you or your partner. Research shows that when giving up one’s expectations in marriage, the marriage begins a slow death.

Save your marriage.

Keep the Faith

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6 Responses to “Help: My spouse gets really defensive…What do I do?”

  1. Barb Barghahn on April 6th, 2009 4:47 pm

    “That’s right. Roll with it. Sound too simple? It is extremely difficult. There are two options; five second delay or agree with what is agreeable (Gottman, 2005).”
    Rolling with it makes good sense and doesn’t sound so difficult
    IF a person can STOP their own talking to make use of one of
    the two options. That must be the “extremely difficult” part! Or the
    the difficult part may be setting your opinion aside long enough
    to implement one of the options. Or both. This is where ONE
    PERSON can make a difference in the direction of their marriage,
    without participation from a spouse, and feel empowered to do
    “something” positive.

    “I implore you to maintain your expectations and to argue for what you want. I am suggesting that how you are arguing is not working for you or your partner. Research shows that when giving up one’s expectations in marriage, the marriage begins a slow death.”
    I never thought of this part quite like this…”begins a slow death.”
    It sounds like boundary-setting is a big part of “maintain
    your expectations” as well as not losing your individual identity
    in your marriage. A “slow death” sounds like a painful thing.

    Thanks for sending these out…they make a person think.

  2. tstein on April 6th, 2009 5:42 pm

    Marriage is about giving and maintaining your sense of self. The great paradox of marriage – how to change it while accepting your partner 🙂

  3. How defensiveness is destroying your marriage... - Respect Dare Blog For Married Women on February 8th, 2016 10:28 am

    […] A few ways of dealing with someone who is defensive  […]

  4. Jane on June 4th, 2016 12:05 am

    I can see where this advice would be beneficial if you had two relatively “whole” individuals with at least a somewhat balanced sense of self. However, I’m married to a highly Narcissistic man who has very stunted emotions. There has never been one single disagreement/argument that we’ve had in 20+ years where his default–utterly dug in place–position wasn’t completely defensive. Everything–always–is actually my fault, as he explains it, and if I have the audacity to disagree, then he exaggerates the entire situation into Mt. Everest, with me as the evil ogre who who attacked him when he didn’t deserve it.

    An initial comment (by me) recently . . . “I was surprised that you didn’t run the dishwasher last night. It was pretty full.” . . . ended up with him hollering at me, “I don’t know why you even stay with me, if I’m such a monster!” I admit that one by one, as he threw out every lame excuse he could muster, I systematically rejected them for the lameness they embodied. (Usually I don’t bother engaging at all because it’s pointless.) This, of course, resulted in him becoming more and more agitated–despite me never raising my voice throughout. Yes, I was sarcastic.

    What’s sad is that we did a year and a half of marriage therapy, largely because I had finally gotten to the place where I just couldn’t handle it any more. He did manage to get a glimpse of self-awareness–enough to admit that he is very difficult to live with; however, I honestly don’t see that there is a way to fix his pathology. He’s so OCD (more than anyone else knows), I just don’t see it.

    I know that his sense of self is that of loathing, when he is completely honest. I can’t fix that, though. I just basically stopped engaging in ANY conversations that could escalate, since every disagreement is interpreted as an unwarranted attack and in his mind pokes at that loathing–and he DOESN’T DESERVE THAT, DAMMIT!!

    We’re both committed Christians, and committed to our marriage, but at times it is exceedingly difficult. And, because his emotions are so limited, I do feel kind of bereft. Here is the best example I can present. When we were in therapy, during what I have dubbed “marriage hell,” I asked him one night, “How do you actually feel about me?” He said, “Well, I think you’re beautiful; I think you’re talented; I think you’re intelligent . . .” I interrupted him and said, “No–that’s what you THINK about me. How do you FEEL about me.” We lay there in silence for nearly 5 minutes, and he finally said, “Maybe I AM a bad husband,” and left the room.

  5. tstein on November 11th, 2016 9:17 pm

    Hi Jane
    My heart goes out to you. There seems to be something lurking in his mind that misreads your neutral approaches as a threat – meaning unsafe for him for some reason. It is natural that you have now backed away from him. When human beings don’t have the positive interactions they need as young children in our earliest of experiences, that our neural – architecture “remembers” but are below our conscious awareness, the impact can be long lasting on development – especially emotional development. For example, we know how to tie our shoes and we learned this from our caregivers, and which shoe to put on first, but most of us don’t remember this being taught to us on a conscious level. Based on these early experiences, some develop an adaptation of self-protectedness and excessive independence in order to cope with the idea that their person was not present for them. This also contributes to low feelings of worth as well as a cutting off from the relationship/reward and affect regulation/mood and attunement/empahty parts of the brain (the limbic system). As adults, they know something is wrong but don’t know how to change it. After the self protective measures, they may often feel guilty but don’t know why. Average intimacy is threatening and efforts to get close are rejected. Behaviors end up being controlling and defensive. These are hard patterns to change as you have experienced. There is nothing worse than walking on egg shells in your home and relationship.

  6. tstein on February 28th, 2017 3:56 am

    Hi Jane
    Sorry for the delay. I wish I had more hours and time in the day! There are many broken people seeking refuge through church. Some of them have had such difficult early experiences though that has impacted their neurological development that change takes more than going to church on Sundays. You describe a highly defended person with high ego sensitive whose glasses activate a ‘threat’ response in the brain when there is no real threat present. They often move from alert to alarm to fear rapidly and unprovoked because of their own early experiences that NO SPOUSE CAN FIX. There are certain areas (not literal but through neural-connections) that are related to relationships. You are often left to feel like you are walking on egg-shells. I think you description aptly captures his disconnection from the emotional regions of his neurodevelopment as evidenced by a lack of feeling vocabulary. We term this “alexithymic”- without words for feelings and you also describe what appears to be difficulty in social interactions. While I cannot armchair diagnose, you also describe OCD (which I interpret as repetitive behaviors and ruminating). Taken collectively, what you describe appears to be related to the autism spectrum which would be where traditional marriage therapy would fail. With that said, I do not recommend pointing this out to him. No one likes to be criticized nor told by their intimate partner “hey, you have this.” It is often a relief for the “discoverer” or wounded partner to have an interpretation but to expect your spouse to be saying “wow, thanks honey for that. I feel so much better and that explains so much” is not realistic nor fair. You can become the best version of yourself through individual therapy and learn to accept and work with his adaptations. It won’t be all roses and delight, but you can feel good about you and being in your marriage. This is the greatest paradox of marriage, “accepting your spouse and expecting it to get better.” Sometimes, we can get back in our relationships what we put out…
    In prayers

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