Defensiveness In Relationships: The Number One Intimacy Killer


By Megan Broadhead

These themes continually come up in my therapy sessions with couples, as they're powerful patterns that are important to address. I think about defensiveness and inflexibility as they relate to my tendencies within my marriage.

In The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra writes,

When you become defensive, blame others, and do not accept and surrender to the moment, your life meets resistance. Any time you encounter resistance, recognize that if you force the situation, the resistance will only increase. You don’t want to stand rigid like a tall oak that cracks and collapses in the storm. Instead, you want to be flexible, like a reed that bends with the storm and survives.

I love these words and at the same time, I recognize what a challenge living them out can be. How do defensiveness and inflexibility creep their way into your relationships?

I see it when I’m 100% sure that my way of preparing the salmon for our dinner is the ONLY way to do so. I see it when I’m not open to criticism regarding my reaction to that person who cut me off in traffic. When I’m sure that I’m right and my husband is wrong, wrong, wrong. Being an oldest child of four- this comes up a bit.

We show defensiveness in various ways- it's not always a verbal reaction that counters the other person's point of view. Sometimes, we shut down completely. Sometimes we deflect and point out something the other person does or says that is disagreeable with us. Sometimes we're sarcastic.

Why this response? I don't know about you, but I'm defensive when I do not want to face possible deficits within myself. I'm defensive when I want to avoid uncomfortable feelings.

Our partners and others close to us have a way of bringing out our defensiveness and a certain need to protect our ego. Why is this? What if we felt comfortable entertaining the vulnerable spaces within ourselves?

Chopra also says,

If you relinquish the need to defend your point of view, you will in that relinquishment, gain access to enormous amounts of energy that have been previously wasted.

Couples often report that the moments they are able to open themselves up to their partner’s perspective, there is a certain intimacy that develops. It’s true -- in relinquishing the need to defend ourselves, we are energized. In choosing a response that is open and not defensive, we are opened to ourselves, to another, and to other ways of seeing the world.

How can you open yourself up to your partner in new ways? How can you choose to let go of defensiveness and gain valuable energy?

There are three things to remember when trying to become more open to your partner:

  1. Notice and validate your feelings.  If you're feeling defensive, validate it. Pay attention to what's going on within you and tell yourself that whatever is going on is OK.
  2. Ask your partner to restate what they are saying.  Aim to hear their words in the most objective place you can access within yourself. Practice empathy and imagine yourself in their shoes.  Be curious.
  3. Work through it. Ask yourself if you agree with the criticism or feedback, and, if you do, consider what you can do to work through it. Remind yourself that we all have things to work through within ourselves; we're all on our own journeys and none of us have it all figured out. You are human.  You are learning and growing. Be kind to yourself.