‘DEFENSIVENESS’ is Offensive


Goal to Help Children Led to Specializing in Couples Therapy
By Caralee Frederic, LCSW | Certified Gottman Therapist | Couples Workshop Presenter

Defensiveness is one of the “4 Horsemen” that are predictors of relationship dissolution, according to marriage expert Dr. John Gottman. (The other behaviors that lead to divorce are Criticism, Stonewalling and Contempt.)

These comments are meant to proclaim one’s innocence and are an attempt to defend oneself, rather than work toward resolution. They sound like:

“Oh yeah? Well, what about when you…” “Why are you making such a big deal about this?”

While it may be an understandable reaction when we feel unfairly picked on, it is extremely unhelpful to any relationship and escalates conflict. Defensiveness offends the recipient and, ultimately, offends your relationship.

How a couple responds when a conflict arises is key to whether the relationship is heading toward lasting happiness or unhappiness and, perhaps, even divorce. Being able to manage conflict will ultimately increase trust and reinforce friendship.

Defensiveness makes successful conflict-management nearly impossible.


Defensiveness appears in one of 2 ways: • righteous indignation (how dare you! I don’t have to take this!) or • innocent victimhood (why can’t you see all the good I do?).

Whichever direction it takes, Defensiveness is a way of shifting the focus away from addressing the problem or complaint; Defensiveness shifts focus toward blaming your partner.

Defensiveness is a rejection of an invitation for growth and improvement, and an unwillingness to take responsibility for both the solution and the problem.

Sometimes Defensiveness can be subtle if we’re using a soft tone of voice, or using words such as: “I didn’t mean to,” “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

If the conflict is escalating, you can be almost certain that Defensiveness is in the room.

Defensiveness may be something we learned growing up and can be habit-forming. And, thus, it can be something we can un-learn as we learn how to calm and soothe our emotions.

REPLACING DEFENSIVENESS Instead of Defensiveness, partners in a happy relationship know how to accept responsibility for their own part of the problem. They actively looking for their part, asking questions such as: • “Is there any validity to my partner’s view?” • “What can I do to make this better in the future?”

Both partners must understand that both our viewpoints are valid and important, even if they disagree.

Successful couples value their partner’s feelings and experience. They say things like: “What you are saying is starting to make sense; tell me more.”

You will find that these kinds of words will quickly soften the feelings of both you and your partner, and allows both partners to step away from Defensiveness. Such words show your partner that you cherish him or her above your own need to be “right.”