Decreasing Defensiveness in Conflicts

Two brown people, faces unseen, pointing at one another, in conflict in a kitchen
Published on
February 21, 2024

Do you find that you and/or your partner(s) are often getting defensive in communication? Defensiveness can be detrimental to a relationship because it places blame on the other person, never taking responsibility for one’s own actions or contribution to the challenges at hand. Additionally, our own defensiveness will often lead to the other person getting defensive, which keeps you both in perpetual, gridlocked conflicts, without feeling any sense of resolution or connection.

Why am I getting defensive?

One of the biggest antidotes to defensiveness is curiosity, which will help us explore the origins of why we are getting defensive in the first place. We are often quick to blame the other person rather than slowing down and checking in on:

  1. Is what they are saying true? Even just a small percentage of it?
  2. If it’s true, why is it eliciting defensiveness in me? Is it touching on a core negative wound of mine or does it feel like they are mischaracterizing me?

Generally people get defensive because someone is telling them something they did wrong and it either is inaccurate (maybe they misunderstood you/your intentions) or it’s accurate and it triggers something within the recipient of the feedback. When we get curious and pause for a moment to reflect on the feedback of the other person, we can manage our own response in light of what we’ve learned.

If it’s untrue/inaccurate: validate first. Naturally we’re feeling defensive because we think they are wrong. However, if we are quick to jump to correction or to tell someone they’re wrong, they’re going to perceive our defensiveness and either stop listening or respond in kind with their own defenses. Validating first could look like:

Person A: “You forgot to run the dishwasher again this morning.”

You: “Oh that’s weird that it didn’t run (validation that part of what they stated what correct). I did start the dishwasher this morning but maybe something went wrong. Let’s go check.”

Rather than starting off with defensiveness (“Oh my gosh yes I did!!”) by acknowledging part of the other person’s experience, they are able to stay curious with you rather than a fight escalating. This is because you are giving them the benefit of the doubt.

If what they are saying is true: it’s time to check in with why their statement is making you feel defensive. Reflect internally, “why does this bother me? Is it connected to something deeper/more important than the surface issue?” If so, acknowledging that is important.

From our dishwasher example: Maybe you notice that you’ve been feeling shame about not helping around the house as much as you could. Perhaps you’re avoiding getting things done because it feels too overwhelming to even know where to start. Or maybe you feel infantilized by your partner for reminding you yet again to get this seemingly simple task done. Whatever it is, explore that with yourself and clue them in.

Person A: “You forgot to run the dishwasher again this morning.”

You: “You saying that is making me feel defensive. You pointing this out makes me feel a lot shame that I’m putting more of the household load on you and not getting things done because of my work stress.”

Recognizing what is below the surface gives an explanation for our actions and hopefully allows our partner to give us the benefit of the doubt. You’re not just ignoring the dishwasher because “you don’t care” or “you’re lazy” or whatever other story they’ve concocted in their mind. You have something going on that is blocking you from getting this thing done (shame and stress) and are owning that.

There’s still something very defensive about this response though…

Antidotes to defensiveness:

There are two more antidotes to defensiveness besides curiosity. One is going to feel so simple, you’re going to roll your eyes and sigh at your screen thinking “that’s therapy 101, Julie.” Nonetheless, the first antidote is using “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Doing this automatically shifts us into the third antidote for defensiveness which is accepting responsibility. Remember, when we’re defensive, we’re deflecting responsibility and not accepting our own role in the dynamics at play. Accepting responsibility is a way to shift the conversation and keep your partner’s defenses down. For example:

Person A: “You forgot to run the dishwasher again this morning.”

You: “I notice feeling defensive at hearing that. I think it’s because what I really feel is shame that I haven’t been taking on my share of the household responsibilities because of work stress.”

This subtle shift in language is allowing YOU to own your emotions, which is ultimately what we are responsible for. Rather than saying “you caused these feelings,” we’re noticing that a certain reaction came up inside of us (defensiveness) that is leading to a whole new set of feelings (shame). Owning that will help our partner give us even more benefit of the doubt because we’re not making them responsible for our emotional state.

Accepting responsibility:

Again, this is an important antidote. When we accept responsibility, we are stepping into co-ownership of the problem and inviting our partner to do the same.

Person A: “You forgot to run the dishwasher again this morning.”

You: “I notice feeling defensive at hearing that. I think it’s because what I really feel is shame that I haven’t been taking on my share of the household responsibilities because of work stress. I’m sorry I missed it and I’m going to set a reminder to go off in the morning to make sure I run it from now on.”

You’re not putting the responsibility back on your partner “can you remind me?” and you’re not making it a task they have to continue to check on by saying “I’ll try to be better about it.” Instead, you’ve brought in a solution to allow yourself to take responsibility for what you missed. You can keep expanding on this too…

You: “… run it from now on. Can you help me out here? The next time I forget, rather than saying ‘you forgot AGAIN to run it,’ can you leave that ‘again’ part out? I notice it drives defensiveness and shame up because I feel like I’m failing over and over when I hear that and I think leaving that word out would help keep me out of the shame spiral.”

Hopefully they are able to take responsibility for that action and meet you where you’re at. I also hope it drives you both to have a conversation about the deeper issue here, which is that work stress is causing you to be distracted from your normal responsibilities and you’re feeling shame about that. How can you, as a couple/partnership, tackle that together? Can you collaborate and agree that this season is temporary and maybe Person A will just be taking on more of the responsibilities for a while? Do you need to engage in more self-care or play together to decrease stress? Do you need explore the bigger picture and possibly look at different job options?

There are lots of possible outcomes, but my point is, there’s usually something more going on under the surface when we’re getting defensive that needs to be examined that you could both collaborate on and ultimately bring you closer.

When all else fails:

When all else fails, take a time out. If you can tell you’re getting defensive and will not have anything kind to say, remove yourself from the situation as quickly and kindly as possible. This is important because when are feeling so defensive that we don’t feel we can control our response, we are “flooded,” which is when we are in fight/rage mode and our primal brain has kicked in. When that happens, logic and reasoning go out the window and anything we say during that time isn’t necessarily going to be true to how we really feel.

Taking a time out could look like:

Person A: “You forgot to run the dishwasher again this morning.”

You: “I’m unable to talk about this right now. Let’s revisit after I go for a walk,” or “I can tell I’m feeling a certain type of way about that and can’t discuss this right now. Let’s talk about this later,” or “I need to take break right now.”

There are so many different ways you can ask for a timeout. Giving your partner the heads up that you’re going to come back to them to discuss later will hopefully decrease the chances of them pursuing you to try and keep the conversation going. You should both discuss the value of time outs in advance so they can appreciate that anything you say, if they continue to pursue you, will likely be coming from a rage place, which is ultimately unhelpful to you both. The time out will give you a chance to implement the first three antidotes previously mentioned when you feel cooled off and in a place to chat.


There are a few caveats to this whole defensiveness thing.

  1. You need to have enough self-insight to be able to understand why you are getting defensive. If you can’t identify this, consider going to therapy to dig deeper into what’s driving those feelings for you
  2. Defensiveness will be much harder to combat if your relationship has a lot of contempt/criticism in it. It’s easier to keep defenses down when we know our partner is likely to give us the benefit of the doubt and that there is trust and mutual respect between you. If there’s not, consider going to therapy together to explore how to shift your relationship dynamics.
  3. Defensiveness can often be masked by manipulation. “I feel really sad that you don’t believe I didn’t load the dishwasher,” can be a manipulation tactic to force the other person to take responsibility for your emotions. Don’t do that. Take ownership for YOUR ROLE in the situation, rather than placing blame on them.
  4. These tips are not applicable for relationships in which domestic violence and abuse are ongoing. If you are experiencing either of these, please seek professional help immediately.

If you struggle with defensiveness, there are clear avenues for getting out of it, though it can take time and practice to create the change you want to see. Be patient with yourself and let your partner know that it’s something you’re working on. Be collaborators in working on decreasing defensiveness overall as a couple/partnership.

Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

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