How To Stop Being Defensive In Your Relationship

Defensive behavior can ruin your relationship.

Last updated on Dec 15, 2022

woman with shocked and defensive facial expression pointing at herself incredulously Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

Have you ever said any of these defensive statements to your partner, causing a rift in your communication and your relationship?

"Why am I always wrong?!"

"Whenever there is a problem, you always blame me!"

"I've never been able to pursue my career, it's always you and your career first!"

"I don't care what you think, that's not what happened at all! I'd never do that!"

If your answer is "Yes," then, unfortunately, you are not alone in needing to learn how to be more empathetic and stop being so defensive in your relationship.


Why defensiveness is a problem in relationships

Couples therapist and researcher John Gottman includes defensiveness in what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in relationships: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

The Four Horsemen are behaviors Gottman found to be the biggest predictor of divorce.

When your words, tone and body language are often defensive, it makes your partner feel as though you don't take them seriously and/or are not will to consider your own accountability for at least some of the problems in your relationship.

This drives a wedge between the two of you that prevents you from reaching the kind of meaning resolutions that bring couples closer rather than driving them farther apart.


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Examples and solutions for how to stop being defensive in a relationship

1. Complain without blame.

When you start a conflict discussion with your partner by using "you" statements and blaming your partner for the problems in the relationship, this will put them on the defense.

Try this: See if you can work at rephrasing your words by using "I" and "I feel" statements. Start the conversation by stating how you feel and then stating what you need. For example, "I feel annoyed when you don't help out around the house. I need you to help with the dishes at night." This helps set a more positive tone for the conversation.


2. Give thanks and appreciation.

This is one of those small things that will make a big difference. Let your partner know when you are thankful, including for the little things they do.

Try this: Be specific: "Thank you for listening to me last night, I know you had a lot to do." Let your partner know you appreciate them. This is another time where it helps to be specific: "I appreciate your sense of humor and that you try to cheer me up when I am feeling down."

This is really something you can never do enough in a relationship.



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3. Take a break.

You don't have to solve your problems right away. Gottman's research found that 69 percent of problems in a relationship aren't solvable. This means you need to build a culture of understanding in your relationship.

Try this: Agree to take at least a 20-minute break during a conflict discussion. During this time, you don't think about your partner or what you are upset about. Agree to come back and talk about your disagreements respectfully after both of you have had a chance to cool off and clear your head so you can think more rationally.

4. Stop comparing your relationship to others.

This is something we have all done at one time or another. But here's the thing: No relationship is perfect.

Try this: Strive for your relationship to be good enough. It's easy in our culture to expect perfection. In reality, no one has it.


5. Think fondly of your partner while they are away.

It's easy to get carried away with your thoughts and think of all the bad times in your relationship.

Try this: Think about why you married your partner. Out of all the people out there, why did you choose your partner? After being in a relationship for a while it's easy to focus on the negative. Think of five things that you love about your partner and stay focused on those thoughts for the day.

how to stop being defensive

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Yes, it's time you took a look at how you communicate. Choose your words with one another and change the dialogue you use towards one another.

And, should it seem as though things are simply too difficult to turn around and you are at an impasse, try seeking professional help, such as couples therapy.

This can provide an excellent environment for both of you to feel heard and understood so you can continue moving forward in your relationship together, and with a closer bond perhaps than before.

After a while, however you choose to resolve your defensive behavioral setbacks, this will eventually feel like the natural way to communicate with your partner and — not only will you be in a happier, healthy relationship — you will start enjoying one another's company again and remember you are, in fact, on each other's side, no matter what.


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Lianne Avila is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist.