What is Defensive Behavior?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines defensive as, “serving to defend or protect,” and also, “devoted to resisting or preventing aggression or attack.”
Interestingly, the premise of defensive behavior is that you are attempting to protect something that is vulnerable. Within the vulnerability is fear. Instead of being able to show that fear, bring it to the surface, and let others see that see it, you keep it hidden instead. This often leads to an “attack and defend” process rather than a resolution process.
You do this by being defensive. The problem? When the closest person in your life tries to peek through you push back, which causes problems.
Other reasons you choose defensive behavior include:
- Trouble handling criticism or feedback.
- Not feeling comfortable “in your own skin” as your own person.
- Insecurity about yourself, your skills/abilities, etc.
- Inability to see that you have faults too.
Again, the idea is that this response is based on fear and that you will do whatever it takes to protect yourself from feeling vulnerable. This may have been learned as far back as childhood while interacting on the playground, or as a result of negative interactions with your parents. The problem now though, is that the behaviors that once protected you are damaging your relationship with your spouse or partner. When we become defensive we are driving a wedge between ourselves and the one we love. None of us are perfect so to admit our role in a disagreement or problem is a connecting action rather than a distancing process.
So what can you do?
Start Having a Conversation You don’t need to have all of the answers in place to start having a conversation about your defensive behavior. Sit down with your partner when both of you are calm and have the clear headspace to talk. It might be hard to discuss initially, but trust that your partner has your best interests in mind and only wants the best for your relationship. According to the Gottman Institute defensiveness is one of the “Four Horseman of the Acropolis” which are four behaviors that interfere building healthy relationships. The antidote for defensiveness is accepting responsibility. For example instead of acting defensive a statement of accountability might be as simple as, “I could have handled that better” or “Sorry, let me try again.” This not only is a statement of strength and being present it is an invitation to your partner to get closer.
Develop a Code
As part of this discussion, you and your partner can develop a system to cut off the defensive behavior before it’s too late. This could be a word, phrase, or physical action (such as raising a hand to motion “stop”). You may not have the ability yet to recognize when you are being defensive. This is because you have been doing it for so long. Your partner can help you by indicating when you start being defensive. This affords you both to at least a pause in the conversation until you are both ready to continue. Most often when we are feeling defensive our bodies are flooded with stress hormones, we might feel a tightness in our belly or chest. When we notice our bodies reaction we might take a time out, “I just need a break can we talk about this later.” When we are “flooded” it takes 20 – 40 minutes for the body to calm down. Only then can we think clearly and process with our partners moving towards resolution and connection.
This isn’t just a one-time conversation topic. This requires real work. Why?
- Because your defensiveness doesn’t solve the problem.
- It’s pushing away the person you love.
- Defensiveness leaves both of you on edge, wondering what the next trigger will be and when will it happen.
- Over time defensiveness creates resentment, mistrust, and hurt feelings for both of you.
Defensive behavior takes a long time to develop and it takes time to unlearn as well.
Consider Professional Counseling
Because defensive behavior involves so many issues, it’s helpful to seek out professional counseling that specifically focuses on defensiveness and men’s counseling. A therapist will help get to the root of this behavior and help you understand why you do this. You will also learn communication skills that allow you to talk assertively to your partner as well as listen too.
There are reasons why you use defensive behavior, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. You can break free and develop a better understanding of yourself as well as strengthen the relationship with your partner. Isn’t that worth the work? For additional information on defensiveness and conflict management, visit Philip’s Relationship Counseling for Men page or call (813) 651-1221.