Defensiveness in communication is pretty much the worst. So what do you do if your partner defensive, and it's plaguing your every conversation? For starters, give yourself a cold, hard look. According to 10 super-smart relationship experts, the problem is often coming from within the house when defensiveness crops up in a romantic relationship. In other words, though it may be tempting to blame it all on your difficult partner, you might want to have a peek at yourself.
No one wants to admit fault in relationships, and it's always easy to point the finger, but anyone willing to work on themselves knows that it's way more fulfilling to really go deep in a true partnership and see if there's anything you can do to ameliorate a problem, before going hard on your partner and demanding a change. Though it's certainly true that a very defensive partner probably has some underlying issues that are going to need some support, it might be eye-opening to see if there's anything you can personally do to make things better — or at least different. Here are 10 things to keep in mind as you attempt to find change — and peace — in your relationship.
1. Take Inventory
"The first thing you need to do is look at why," Marina Sbrochi, IPPY award-winning author of Stop Looking for a Husband: Find the Love of Your Life tells Bustle. "Take the last defensive situation you found yourself in with your partner. Write down what went down — as it happened, no emotion. Now, take it line by line and see if you can find out what spurred the defensiveness. Has your partner made poor money decisions in the past and your talk was about money? Natural defensiveness comes up around that issue. You can then see if your comment triggered some defensiveness — and maybe be honest and see if your comment actually had a passive aggressive tone — or perhaps an underlying 'I don’t trust you with money' to it."
But if that doesn't help, it might be a bigger problem. "If you have a partner that takes every, single thing personally … that’s a deeper issue," Sbrochi adds. Ask yourself if they use a substance that could then lead to paranoid behavior on their part. Or maybe they've "lived a life of mistrust of others due to past experiences?" Sbrochi says. Whatever the case may be, it can be helpful to get a third party — like a counselor, or even a trusted friend or advocate — involved.
"In the meantime, you can only control your reactions to the defensiveness, and asking questions in a calm manner could help your person recognize the origin of the defensiveness," she says. "You could say something like, 'What did you hear that made you respond the way you did? Was there a tone you reacted to? What part of the conversation was most upsetting to you?' Calmly helping the person to dig deeper is about all you can do."
2. Check Yourself
"First, check yourself. Are you coming at your partner in a critical way or broaching issues with a harsh tone?" relationship counselor Crystal Bradshaw tells Bustle. "If you are, then the natural response from the other party is to be defensive to protect from an attack, which is what it feels like. You may be setting the stage for a fight and not even realize you're doing it. When someone comes at you in a negative way, the natural response is to defend yourself."
If this is the case, try being more gentle. "How you present things makes a huge difference in how the conversation will go. Instead of saying, 'You never call me to tell me you're running late and I'm left waiting and wondering. You're so inconsiderate!' say this instead: 'I know your work schedule gets crazy, and sometimes you lose track of time, but it would mean a lot to me if you could make it a priority to let me know you'll be home late. I would really appreciate that,'" she says.
The simple tweak works wonders. "Saying it this way makes you accountable for how you are feeling and not blaming your partner for how you are feeling," she says. "You are owning it. You're saying, 'I feel this way because of this, and this is how you can help me.' You're not attacking your partner; you're stating your needs appropriately while at the same time letting your partner know how they can help those needs get met." Defensiveness has a smaller chance of cropping up if your side of the street is clean.
3. If It's Hysterical, It's Historical
"If your partner is super defensive, this is usually the culmination of previous experience," psychologist Nicole Martinez, who is the author of eight books, including The Reality of Relationships , tells Bustle. "The best thing you can do is talk to them and try to understand what they are thinking and feeling, and why." They might have a past relationship that really hurt them, and some of those old patterns are still sticking out in their mind.
"If it is things that have nothing to do with you, that you have never done, you have to help them see you are an individual, and gently point out when they are reverting to old reactions," Martinez says. "This will help them view your relationship as unique, and to help them judge you based on what you have done in this relationship, as opposed to what someone may have done to them in the past." With a little work, you should be able to move past it.
4. Above All, Don't Accuse
"Start with communicating in a way that doesn't leave them defensive, and that means not accusing," Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With A Narcissist , tells Bustle. "When possible, take ownership," she suggests, adding that "I" statements ("I feel," "I am") are useful here. "They can't really accuse you of not feeling a certain way," she says. "They may still remain defensive. Gently point it out and even offer an alternative."
For example, if you say, "I am so tired, it was a tough week," and they take this personally, responding, "That's not my fault, don't blame me," it's time to go another step, Durvasula says. "Dig deep into what ever energy you have left and say, 'I know it was not you, I was merely making a comment about my week — you were just fine,'" she advises. "Defensiveness is often a part of a projective style, which is seen in people who find it difficult to take responsibility, feel insecure, or may be fully narcissistic." Though it's hard to find a different way, if you're open to working together, it can happen. "It's not an easy style to change, and in many cases, couples therapy may be needed to reshape that rather frustrating and often damaging style," she says. Remain open and see what happens next.
5. Watch Your Words
"Defensive people are touchy people, unhealed people, or just hypersensitive ones," relationship coach and psychic medium Cindi Sansone-Braff, author of Why Good People Can't Leave Bad Relationships , tells Bustle. "They tend to take everything personally, overreact, and they can be really big drama kings and queens." If your partner is this way, be careful. "The best way to deal with this kind of a partner is to watch your words: Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't be mean about it," she says. "People will usually hear what you have to say if you avoid words that sound judgmental, critical, unkind or harsh."
Be mindful about your delivery. "Try bringing your sense of humor to the discussion," she says, "laughter can help disarm even the touchiest of people." Think about where you have important discussions. "If you need to correct your partner or to point something out, never do it in front of an audience. Wait until you're alone with him or her, and then state the facts calmly as to what he or she could or should have done differently," she says. That said, it's exhausting to walk on eggshells. Be kind — and if your partner doesn't fall in line, it's time for a serious talk.
6. Plan Ahead
"Approach is everything," Stefanie Safran, Chicago's "Introductionista" and founder of Stef and the City, tells Bustle. Never straight-up say, "You are doing this wrong," she says. That will only elicit defensiveness: "You probably are going to get a bad response," she says. "You need to have a discussion outside of the actual issue at hand. Ask how they want you to approach them when there is an issue. Both sides should explain how you communicate and fight, and hopefully you can use that information for the issues at hand." Next time a storm cloud approaches, you'll be better equipped to dispel it without tension.
7. Lay Down Your Weapon
"When a partner is defensive, it’s easy to put up your dukes and fight back — but that’s also the worst thing you can do to diffuse the problem," New York–based relationship expert and author April Masini tells Bustle. "Instead, throw down your sword, so to speak." Be kind, above all.
"Tell your partner that they’re right, and you understand why they feel the way they do. Explain how you feel and what you’d like," she says. "This is a new way of breaking an old pattern in a relationship with a partner who makes the defensive position seem aggressive."
8. Get A Good Therapist
"One-sided relationships often have a defensive mode," zen psychotherapist and neuromarketing strategist Michele Paiva tells Bustle."They feel attacked, not good enough, and there is hurt under the anger and arguments," she says. "You can work on it by therapy and seeing if you are triggering something in them that is reminiscent of their past, which is often the case." Though you might be contributing to the problem, it's usually a combination, she says.
"As an FYI, you probably were attracted to this person to help yourself work out some issues that keep you from intimacy," Paiva adds. "Overall, defense is like 'de fence' — a wall. It's an intimacy blocker and the sooner you both own that it takes two, the better."
9. Let Your Partner Speak
"Usually this means you don’t give your partner a chance to communicate, so he or she has gotten defensive," Tina B. Tessina, aka Dr. Romance, psychotherapist and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working it out Together, tells Bustle. "Don’t rush if you want to help your partner open up. Give your partner plenty of time to put the words together and get them out." Though you might feel impatient, you have to go slow in a relationship.
"The three most important words in a relationship are, 'Tell me more,'” she reminds. "Ask interested questions. Don’t block whatever your partner says with a rebuttal. This is not a debate, it’s a conversation, and you want to hear what your partner wants to tell you." You'll get a lot further this way — and you'll be happier, too.
10. Remember It Really Might Be About You, At Least In Part
"Work on your delivery," life coach Kali Rogers tells Bustle. "Perhaps your tone or content can be tweaked a bit to come across softer." Though you might not think it's your problem, this issue usually is a two-way street kind of deal. "Remind your partner that you two are on the same team," Rogers says. "Defensiveness arises when one feels attacked and feels the need to protect themselves. Having calm conversations with soft deliveries and constant reminders of unity help dissolve defensiveness." Team relationship for the win!
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