Defensiveness and how it destroys relationships

(not a quick read)

There are many ways to tackle the topic of defensiveness. There are multiple layers to dismantle and all components can be individually analyzed.  The topic is fascinating to many people and for those who have a professional interest in psychology. The information is essential for those who engage in couple therapy.

Sigmund Freud and his contemporary psychoanalysts wrote about the ego defense mechanisms. Anna Freud did some interesting work as she expanded the list of ego defenses identified by her peers. Not all ego defense mechanisms are maladaptive, some are healthy such as humour when implemented at the right time and place. Others are commonly recognized by all of us to a certain extent. The most well-known ego defenses include repression, denial, projection, and rationalization.

This post will zoom into a narrow perspective on defensiveness and the most common way the topic is addressed on many therapy websites and in blog posts. On one of the websites, the site of the Gottman institute, rates for separation and divorce are predicted based on ineffective and harmful communication. The harmful ways in which couples communicate is referred to as the four horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.

About Defensiveness

One: It is quite normal for all of us to become defensive at certain times. One reason recognized by many of us is when we are accused of something we did not do. Our first reaction to a false accusation is denial, in this case denying a false accusation is not being defensive, but an attempt to set the record straight. People become naturally defensive when they feel attacked, criticized, and manipulated and although perceived as negative and personal, it may not be the intent of the other party.

Two: Then there are people who knowingly use defensive strategies to repress the many layers of the intent of their behaviour. Deep inside these people know that the reason they provide for their actions is only partly true or is the one that is most acceptable or the one that will be accepted by the other party. This behaviour is of course, manipulative, and deceptive and when recognized by others the person engaging in these behaviours will eventually be known as someone who is less trustworthy.

Three: And then there are people who rarely will admit that they were wrong or that they made mistakes or that they failed at a task. These people rather deny that it even happened, or conveniently blame others or the situation for the failure. They might go so far as to obstinately keep on repeating that they were not wrong, and they get angry when they are confronted by others. They use semantics to minimize the impact or to remain deliberately vague. They may derail the listener or spin and twist others’ words. They try to deflect to shift the responsibility on something or someone else and unfortunately, some are so experienced in these behaviours that they often leave the other party feeling confused or even guilty.

An apology to be effective needs to be genuine and heartfelt and not yet another attempt to shift responsibility to others.

The behaviour described above is hurtful to a spouse. It also places them in an incredible difficult position as they realize that they are living with a person who does not take criticism ever as constructive feedback. To change this unhealthy pattern of communication, it is them who have to become the “patient therapist”, as the defensive spouse would simply deny that they have a problem that needs work.

These relationships can be “successful” on the surface however, when the non-defensive spouse accepts the hurtful behaviours and tries to live with it by adopting an approach that includes ignoring and avoidance. It is not unlikely that the spouse might be in denial and might not fully recognize the repetitive pattern for many years. It is obvious that whether identified and acknowledged or not, what is described above is not an ingredient of a healthy and equal relationship.

When nothing changes, the spouse on the receiving end may start to feel that they are indeed the problem as when they attempt to address the situation, the interaction tends to end with them feeling that they were unreasonable, or harsh or that they lack empathy and understanding. It is quite normal that in reaction to a defensive spouse, they too start to respond defensively. They may suffer from a decreased self worth and with the years rolling by they learn not to challenge or confront or question their partner and this keeps the status quo of the unhealthy relationship intact.

There are quite a few articles written by well-meaning therapists who state that defensiveness originates from childhood and that those who are defensive struggle with accepting responsibility for their mistakes as they lack a good solid sense of self worth and confidence. They state that children have developed this pattern out of protectionism and that deep inside these individuals lack self esteem and are afraid for failure as they were so unfortunate as to never have been provided with guidance to develop a mature way of accepting responsibility for the consequences of their behaviour.

Well-meaning therapists are so taken by the “hurt little kid” in the adult body, that their suggestions focus on what the “confident” spouse must do. This means that they place near all responsibility for progress on the gentleness and patience of the spouse who is suggested to avoid criticism, to employ diplomatic strategies and to rephrase any “blame” into a request for the future. The well-meaning professionals are stressing that the solution includes a change of behaviour in both and that the worst a spouse can do is to become angry and defensive themselves.

Let us look at little bit deeper into the issue.

We know that it is not a given that those who did not have the most nurturing upbringing, are likely to become defensive. There are many people who did not receive the ideal childhood with loving parents. Many never developed a secure attachment with their primary caregiver, but not all of them became defensive. Our family of origin, however, is only one of the many influences that shape the development of a mature self. It is also interesting to observe that the most obnoxious defensive behaviours tend to manifest at home, and not at work, but that work stress makes its way to the home guaranteed.

Do those who use defensive communication have a low self-esteem?

Rather than a low self-esteem, those who engage more in verbal defensiveness have a fragile self-esteem (which can be high but is defined by a high level of fluctuation, which makes it unstable). These individuals need validation and compliments as their self-esteem is contingent upon perceived achievements (Kernis, Lakey, & Heppner, 2008).

Our society feeds fragile self-esteems rather than stable and secure self esteems. Examples are the “addiction to likes on social media”, the frequent posting of selfies and the need by many to have every movement officially recognized as an awesome achievement. Those who do not depend on the compliments of others to feed a fragile self-esteem are more likely to choose long term over short term goals and are less likely to exercise superiority over others and therefore the  temptation to cheat e.g. on a golf score card does not even enter their mind. As being verbally defensive is a protection of the ego, it is understandable that those with fragile self-esteem resort to defensiveness more than others.

Building of a secure and stable self esteem includes self-acceptance of short comings and an acceptance of own limitations. Parents who unconditionally love their children and who guide them through ups and downs without becoming overly protective do foster a healthy self esteem. Not every child is a winner and that is OK. Every individual brings something to the table and these contributions need to be acknowledged although not overly praised. How children accomplish a task is more important than the result. Values, beliefs, and a strong foundation of what is right and wrong are lasting guiding principles. Self esteem is the result and not the cause of academic and career success and the correlation of self esteem to lasting romantic relationships is not clear, but unstable (fragile) self esteem is correlated with defensiveness and narcissism (Baumeister et. al., 2003).

Going back to “fixing the defensive spouse” …The key is to be found in the willingness to identify the problems and where these originate. The saying where two fight, two are wrong, can be more than a little frustrating to those who are willing to try, and still obtain the blame, as the other party did not put in the effort. In the end what other options are there for a spouse wanting to communicate better when every attempt is met with a new portion of defensiveness? Demanding a calm response of a spouse who is confronted with the same old same old, is asking of them to become a martyr.

The problem is that defensive people (category 3) are the least likely to admit that they struggle. So, rather than a difficult childhood, we are looking at an attitude and personality issue. And when talking about personality, we get ourselves stuck in the swamp of personality disorders that share the characteristic of a lack of motivation to make changes.

This is exactly the reason that despite placing the onus and all the work on the spouse, it is never going to work, unless the defensive spouse receives the proverbial strong kick in their behind and wakes up to a world that is no longer tip-toeing around them anymore. Maybe that will elicit some motivation to make changes, and after feeling sorry for themselves, they might have to find a good therapist who is strong enough to challenge them on their behaviour and who goes beyond identifying gaps in parenting during childhood. After all, the client is no longer a child and shifting blame is not helping them to take responsibility for their current and future behaviour.

What can a spouse do? First of all this person needs to come to terms with the reality that a person who is extremely defensive might not be ready or willing to change and to work on themselves. If this is the case, the spouse needs to protect themselves. Not by becoming defensive themselves, but by developing strong boundaries, and this may include to leave the relationship. This is hard, but an unhealthy relationship will never become healthy when only one person is putting in the effort. Healthy relationships are based on equality.

And this just underlines the difficult job of a therapist as these clients require insight and if counselling therapists fail to see the issue for what it is, they become part of the problem rather than the solution. Unfortunately, in counselling, the “critical spouse” will be asked too often to rephrase and re-frame and to request rather than complain.


Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J.D., Krueger, J.L. et al. (2003). Does high Self-Esteem cause better Performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier Lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4(1), 1-44.

Kernis, M.H., Lakey, C.E., & Heppner, W.L. (2008). Secure versus fragile high self esteem as a predictor of verbal defensiveness: Converging findings across three different markers. Journal of Personality, pp 477-512.

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