Tips for when a partner is defensive

7 Helpful Ways to Deal With a Defensive Partner

Does your partner get defensive? When you try to discuss something, do you think:

“I can’t talk to him without him getting mad”

“Why is my wife so defensive?”

“My husband gets defensive when I tell him how I feel”

When you’re in a relationship, you have an extra powerful influence on each other’s emotional life. One look from you partner can send a jolt through your nervous system like nobody else can.

Intimacy gives you extra power to trigger of triggering highly charged defenses. You can also spark a deep sense of security too.

Why You Need to Address Defensive Behavior

When a problem persists, and couples can’t fix it, conditions are ripe for a toxic pattern you’ll want to avoid. Defensiveness is part of a sequence that get couples into trouble.

Defensive behavior is the second step of the four horsemen of the apocalypse for relationships according to relationship expert Dr. John Gottman. Unless you fix them, these negative cycles have a track record of driving couples apart:

  • Criticism – blaming the whole person; faulting your partner’s character
  • Defensiveness – refusing to be accountable; turning the tables and faulting your partner
  • Contempt – calling names, being sarcastic, mocking, using put-downs
  • Stonewalling – disengaging, shutting down, withdrawing, retreating, ignoring

Defenses naturally go up in reaction to criticism. So, if it looks like your partner is defensive, it may be that he or she is feeling attacked.

Dealing with defensiveness means both partners look at their role in the conflict. How do you seem to each other?

A curious attitude can help you turn a corner and come together to resolve problems. Think about saying how you feel without criticizing, blaming or faulting each other, for example.

7 Tips To Deal With a Defensive Partner

A defensive reaction is natural when we feel threatened. This happens to every couple that fights. But some couples rise above these patterns. Here are tips from successful couples who work things through:

  1. First, release tension in your body. We pick up visual cues about each other often before anyone speaks. Send safe signals before you start talking. Slow your breathing down. Soften your muscles.
  2. Find somewhere you can talk facing each other. Our eyes are very powerful in regulating each other’s nervous systems. Choose a place where you can sit face to face. Look kindly at your partner. Offer gentle eye contact.
  3. Start by speaking gently with each other. Stay calm and use a soft voice if you possibly can. You want your partner to feel safe speaking with you. If you want him or her to be receptive, open with something positive and non-threatening such as:

I know you don’t mean to hurt me but something is bothering me. I want to tell you about it so we can put it behind us.

  1. Declare friendly intentions. Be clear you are offering kindness, concern, and friendship. Place no blame. Phrases like these may help:

“I am wondering what’s happening right now between us.”

“I want to work this out so we both feel happy here.”

5. Stop when anger has triggered either person’s self-defense system. You can’t reason with anyone who is flooded with emotion. This flashpoint can be more intense for men than for women. Some men can become emotionally triggered very suddenly. In general, men are biologically wired to become fight-ready almost instantly in response to danger.

Look for signs when one or both of you is no longer thinking, and may be in the “red zone.” This is the time to take a break. These phrases might help:

“We are starting to lose it. Let’s take a break.”

“I don’t want to yell at you. Let’s talk when I’m calmer.”

“I get the feeling we’re not listening to each other right now.”

  1. Try to understand what sets off a defensive reaction. You may feel defensiveness or stonewalling begin when either of you have a strong reaction. See if you can invite curiosity or offer understanding:

“You look mad when I said that. I didn’t mean to make you mad – what happened?” 

“I need to know what’s happening here, please talk to me.” 

“I’m listening; can you tell me what’s wrong?” 

“I think you have been feeling attacked. Can you tell me about that?”

  1. If you’re triggered, wait least 20 minutes. It’s important to allow your body to become calm again. How long? It takes at least 20 minutes for your nervous system to feel calm again. You want your mind and heart working together instead of being at odds.

“This is getting intense. We need to stop for a bit.”

Want more phrases? Here is a wonderful cheat sheet of phrases to calm down defensiveness and repair hurts from Dr. Gottman’s research.

Signs It’s Time For a Good Therapist

It is not easy to break deep habits by force of will. It takes time for new patterns to form. If you try your best for a while, and you still can’t talk without fighting, working with a good therapist can help.

Note: These tips are to help couples talk through rough spots. Violence is another matter. If talking with your partner leads to physical harm, these tips will not help. Please reach out to a mental health professional, a trusted friend, a resource at work, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

A skilled couples therapist creates a safe space for both of you to gently look at the hurt behind the walls and defenses. You and your partner create new connections for healing that continue after your work in therapy is done.

It’s amazing how love and healing can blossom when partners become a soothing presence to each other. Friendship and understanding have great calming power. They are tremendously healing.

No partner is perfect. Caring more about the relationship than winning an argument is the key to healing a defensive pattern between you, and giving your love new life.