By Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.
Let me start with what this article is NOT ABOUT. It is not an article about defensive mechanisms in the psychologically academic sense, such as denial, projection, rationalization, etc. It is about that experience of bristling at something someone has said to you, of feeling a “knee jerk” reaction to a statement or look.
Defensiveness has both good and bad aspects. A reaction can alert a person that someone is saying to “back off” – to stop what a person is saying. But, it can also limit someone from taking in valuable information about him or her. And it can interfere with the intimacy and closeness two people can feel for each other. John Gottman, a noted couples therapist and researcher, has said that defensiveness is one of four major negative characteristics that greatly affect the wellbeing of a relationship.
Let me give an example of a defensive reaction. Years ago, I attended a large party. The hosts had hired a caricaturist to draw pictures for the partygoers. I got in line towards the end of the party. The artist and I began chatting and I said, “Wow, your hand must be tired by the end of the evening, with all these people here.” The man raised his voice, angrily saying, “I’ve been doing this for many years and why do people assume my hand is tired when it isn’t!” I wasn’t trying to indicate that he was defective or deficient in any way, but I knew I’d hit a nerve.
This is one of the identifying characteristics about defensiveness: a nerve has been hit when someone responds abruptly, intensely, and automatically. For many people, when they feel defensive, they may assume the other person is attacking them but it may not be so. But for the person feeling defensive, the experience may be so strong that they can only assume that if they feel attacked, the other person must have meant to attack.
Here are a few points that can help people understand each other more clearly. First, don’t assume that the other person is trying to attack you. Instead, this is your opportunity to explore why the comment upsets you. What can the interchange teach you about yourself? Using the example from above, let’s imagine what the artist was feeling. He was an older gentleman, so perhaps he was feeling that someone was indicating he wasn’t up to the task, that he was not as vital as he once was. The defensive feeling means something.
Second, it helps if you are the person who has received a defensive response from someone; do not assume you know why the person is reacting to you. It is far better to say, “I realize by your response that I’ve stepped on your toes in some way, but I’m not sure exactly what offended you. Could you tell me?”
Third, if you have received a defensive response from someone and you know you said something snide or sarcastic, own it. It doesn’t mean that the person can’t learn something about their reaction, but it can be “crazy-making” to tell someone that you have no idea why they are so upset when you have intended to upset them and you now claim complete innocence.
Exploring your Defensiveness
The defensive reaction comes about as a way to protect oneself. It is a signal to the other person to back off, to stop what they are doing or saying. The exploration needs to be a basic one: what bothers me about what this person is saying to me?
Let’s consider this scenario: A wife comes home from work late and her husband comments, “You’re home later than usual.” She bristles and replies, “What do you want from me? I had to work late. “Perhaps she knows he tends not to trust her, to feel jealousy when she knows she hasn’t done anything to warrant the mistrust. The problem, though, with her reaction is it ups the ante. It is likely to escalate a fight. I often urge the couples I work with to call for a “do-over.” Push the reset button and say, “let me try that one again.” In this situation, it would be to change her tone and say, “Yes, I am home later than usual. I had a report I needed to finish.” If the husband is feeling threatened, it is his responsibility to own that, to state his fears.
If however, her husband doesn’t tend to be the jealous type, she may want to explore further, why the comment made her so upset. Was she brought up in a family where accusations were implied but never actually spoken? Was jealousy a theme that she saw played out between her parents? Was she accused of infidelity in past relationships?
There are things that you can do to soften your defensive reactions. For example, let’s say your boss tells you your work has gotten sloppy. Rather than denying it or offering a number of excuses about how busy you are, using a neutral tone, ask for clarification. ‘Help me understand. What mistakes, under what circumstances?” You may also take some time. Perhaps saying, “You might be right. Let me take a look at some of the work and get back to you about that.” You now have some time to consider the complaint.
It is important to slow the process down, to explore the interaction. Don’t go over every interchange, but do take some apart and explore them. The more that each person can take a breath, the more likely they can reflect rather than just react.
Dealing with a Defensive Person
If your partner tends to be defensive, you have some soul-searching to do. Are you careful about how you talk to them? Timing, tact and tone are three important considerations to think about when making a complaint. Make sure you are direct, but do not turn that complaint into an all-encompassing statement about their character. These two statements are experienced differently:
I would appreciate it if you would not put your briefcase and keys on the dining room table.
- I wish you would not be so lazy and irresponsible that you are always leaving your briefcase and keys on the dining room table.
If your partner grew up in a household where faultfinding, blame, and criticism were common, defensiveness is likely to be an issue. Make an effort to talk about how best to express a complaint. What does the person need in order to take in the information? Perhaps your partner could benefit from a word of caution. For example, saying, “I want to discuss the way we spend money and I know that’s been a sore subject for us in the past. I’d like to find a way to talk about it so that both of us can feel good about it. Let’s go slowly.”
Especially in intimate relationships, defensiveness needs to be addressed. Couples need to be able to vulnerable with each other about their good and bad qualities, and about the things that make them upset. And they need to be heard. The ability to problem-solve together, to share feelings and reactions is absolutely necessary in a relationship. If you and your partner cannot have conversations without an on-going defensive reaction, you may want to seek a therapist who works with couples.
Dr. Susan Harper Slate is a Clinical Psychologist in practice in Santa Monica. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Dr. Slate can be reached at (310) 582-0010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2017 by Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.