Secrets To Reducing Defensiveness

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Reducing Defensiveness

There are several things that get in the way of relationship satisfaction, and I suppose it’s up for debate as to which one is the most destructive. The one I see most frequently in my office, usually on a daily basis, is defensiveness.  From what I can tell, no one is immune–we ALL feel and express defensiveness at times–some people more than others.

The two most frequently asked questions by couples I see in my office are:

1. Why is he/she so defensive?

2. How can we reduce the defensiveness in our marriage?

First of all, our brain is wired so that it makes defensiveness almost like a reflex. The reason defensiveness is reflex-like is because our brain is wired for survival.  In order to survive, the brain is wired to respond to attack. When attacked, perceived or real, we defend.

The limbic brain is built for survival. That is the part of the brain that is the center of all emotions, and is designed to keep us alive when we are faced with what we perceive as threatening situations. It is the ‘fight-or-flight’ brain. Quite simply if I believe what my partner is saying is threatening, I will probably act defensively.

On the other hand, when I perceive my partner’s comments as nonthreatening, it is very likely I will receive them warm-heartedly and not have a defensive response.

Why do we so easily believe we are being attacked?   In some situations it may be an actual physical threat that we are experiencing. Otherwise, most frequently we believe we are about to lose the love we desire and cherish.

The thing is, it all happens so quickly we are usually not conscious that we carry that belief.  Fact is, we can become defensive in a heartbeat. Problem is, when we become defensive we send several messages to our partner that can produce chronic or irreparable distance.

Here is what some of those messages are:

1. Listening to you is less important than protecting me

2.  The feedback you want me to hear I will not interpret in a way that makes you feel closer to me

3. The message you are sending me is too painful to hear

So, what’s a couple to do? Typically when couples try to focus on reducing defensiveness they tend to view the defensive one as the problem. But I find when I work with couples that it is not a discrete problem with only one of the partners:  it almost always involves both.  Therefore, successful reduction of defensiveness is best achieved when it involves both people.

That does not mean that either of you is responsible for the others defensiveness–you are not.  What it does mean, is that each of you can play a role in reducing the defensiveness on either side of the street by cooperating in what I believe is a very unique and helpful process.

Here is what that process looks like:

Turn your criticism into a complaint. Here’s the difference between a criticism and a complaint.

A criticism is about the one you’re speaking to. For example you say to your partner:  “It’s ridiculous that you always leave the dishes in the sink, and you never put them in the dishwasher.”  Stop talking about your partner, and instead talk about yourself.

The complaint sounds like this: “When you leave the dishes in the sink instead of putting them in the dishwasher I feel very frustrated, irritated, and unappreciated.”  That is how you talk about yourself.

When you are feeling defensive after a particular comment from your partner, you are hearing the comment as a criticism.  Respond with the following sentence, word for word: “That was hard for me to hear, but really want to hear what you have to say, so please restate it as a complaint.”

The distinction between the two is as follows: a criticism is about the other, a complaint is about oneself. In other words, if I’m criticizing you, I’m talking about you;  if I’m complaining,  I’m talking about me. The latter generally is easier to hear and is much less likely to trigger defensiveness.  (Note to those who really want to change:  If you talk about yourself, you raise the odds of being understood exponentially!)

Some see this distinction as splitting hairs. They think it’s unnecessary, and believe that people should simply try to be less defensive. That’s a nice thought, but it’s difficult to tell your limbic brain to ignore the signals that trigger defensiveness.

That’s why turning a criticism into a complaint can be an effective alternative:  a complaint is less likely to be experienced as an attack.  That which is not experienced as an attack does not trigger defensiveness.

You can see how the person receiving the comment plays a role, and how the other person giving the comment also plays a role. Each of you can alter one thing on your respective sides of the street on the road to reducing defensiveness as a couple.

This process involves both people, makes it a couple project, and tends to make the process of the defense reduction mutual and more workable.

Practice turning your criticisms in to complaints.  It works.

Wishing you a satisfying relationship,

Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT
©2012 Jim Hutt, Ph.D, &

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  1. Excellent article, very helpful in the criticism vs complaint dance~

    Comment by Cecilia Long — August 13, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

  2. Concise and applicable. What adaptations would you suggest for reducing defensiveness with a boss?

    Comment by Allen — October 30, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

  3. Hard to give a helpful response without more info–got an example you can give me?

    Comment by Dr. J. Hutt — October 30, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

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