Although most of us have heard the expression “the best offense is a good defense,” that sports analogy needs to go out the window when it comes to your relationship. Getting defensive isn’t a way to diffuse a problem – it’s a way to make things worse. When one or both partners get defensive, they put up barriers between each other and may become withdrawn and distant, and their relationship problems often just get worse over time. A lot of couples seek out a relationship counselor largely because of that defensiveness issue.
So what should partners do if defensiveness seems to be a problem in their relationship? I’d like to talk both about how to deal with a defensive partner and how to let your own guard down in order to have a healthier relationship.
How to Deal with a Defensive Partner
It’s human nature to want to feel safe, and when we’re in a position where we feel like we’re being attacked, our automatic response is to lash out at the attacker to protect ourselves. This doesn’t just apply to physical attacks – we may verbally lash out when we feel like we’re being emotionally attacked as well. If your partner is acting defensively towards you, it’s most likely because he or she is responding to something you said that they perceived as a direct attack.
The next time your partner gets defensive, think about what you said that may have caused them to react that way. Try to rephrase your point in a way that won’t make your partner feel unsafe. For example, instead of assigning blame to them for something that you feel is a problem, tell them how you feel. “I feel hurt when you won’t talk to me” will get you farther than “You never talk to me! Don’t you love me?”
Make your partner feel emotionally safe by really listening to what they have to say and asking questions in a non-critical way. Learn your partner’s true wants and needs and what you can do to help them reach their goals. As my relationship counseling colleague Jill Fein Baker puts it, you have to love your partner out of their defensiveness rather than going on the defensive yourself.
How to Lower your Defenses
If you find that you’re the one being defensive in your relationship, stop and ask yourself why you’re reacting in that way. Is it because you have trouble trusting your partner? Is it because past relationships have made you wary of getting close to someone?
In order to have a truly healthy relationship, you need to trust your partner and accept the safety they offer you. Be willing to open up and share how you feel so that your partner better understands you and where you’re coming from. It takes a lot of courage to let someone into your life, but if you really care about your partner, you need to let down your guard around them.
If you and your partner are still struggling to diffuse the defensiveness, consider seeing a Houston relationship counselor to learn more about how to create a safe environment.