Communication Problems Series, Part 2: Defensiveness

A Sneaky Problem

Defensiveness is a big stumbling block to great communication because it’s so sneaky.  You can’t really see it very well unless you’re on the receiving end of it.  When we accidentally hurt someone, it seems so logical to explain how innocent we are.  “I didn’t mean it!”  or “I didn’t mean it that way, here’s what I wanted to say.”  We want to go on and on about our intentions, and nothing seems wrong with that.  We don’t think of it as a communication problem, because we have no problem with it. But marriage researcher John Gottman has found it’s a big problem.

It’s easy to see it when we’re the injured party.  When someone hurts us, we really don’t care at all about their intentions — at least not right away.  We just feel hurt.  We want someone to care, to have compassion, and maybe to say they were sorry.  (We want the sorry even if they weren’t at fault.  Kind of like you tell someone at a funeral “I’m sorry” even though you definitely had nothing to do with it!)

A Real Life Instance

Let’s look at an example.  One night my husband came into the room after I was sleeping.  He walks in very, very quietly, without turning on the lights, and is working with the alarm clock. Somehow his noise woke me up, and when I opened my eyes and saw him it scared me.  I had assumed I was all alone in a dark room and suddenly I hear weird noise.  Within about a quarter of a second I sat up and let out a terrified scream, scaring the heck out of my husband and myself and probably my kids down the hall.  Oops!

He was understandably ruffled, and not all that happy with me.  I could tell by his lowered eyebrows.  I had scared him, of course.  But I didn’t mean it.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to immediately apologize, very sincerely.  Even though I knew I couldn’t really help what I had done, I felt bad about scaring him.  I apologized even though he was apologizing to me because he scared me, too.  I could see that I had done something that bothered him, and I don’t like to do that.  Of course, I couldn’t promise never to do it again (because I’m a sleep weirdo), but I definitely sympathized and humbly took all credit for scaring him.  No communication problem here.  He felt understood.   He knew I cared, and eventually he felt calm again.  He doesn’t seem to be holding it against me.

It Could’ve Been Worse

But what if I had been defensive?  What if I had blamed him for sneaking in too quietly and for scaring me?  I could easily have done that.  I might have blamed him for not announcing himself, or just talked about how blameless I was since I was sleeping and naturally felt startled, blah, blah blah.  If I had done this, I would have left him out entirely, not paying any attention to my impact on him or to his feelings.  I could have left him feeling misunderstood and very, very annoyed.

Marriage researcher John Gottman, who has a ton of great research on how (and how NOT) to communicate in relationships, singles out defensiveness as one of the four worst communication problems.  (He calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”  that signal the possible end of a marriage.  The others are stonewalling, contempt, and criticism.) Gottman notes that this unhealthy tendency to be defensive has a very negative impact on relationships.  That’s because when you defend, it’s as though you put up a shield against feedback from your partner.  You focus on yourself instead of the person who feels bothered or hurt by your actions.  Defending yourself is also a way of sending the message that “you shouldn’t be hurt, because I’m innocent.”

Look At It This Way

We can see the logic problem here if we look at it another way.  Imagine that I step on your foot, accidentally.  Does it hurt any less because I didn’t mean it?  Should you be happy and pain free, or keep the pain to yourself, just because I didn’t mean it?  Of course not.  The same goes for emotional hurts.  Defensiveness gets in the way of tuning into our partner’s needs.  If we can focus on the hurt party, no matter the cause, and quit trying to get out of trouble, then big, positive things can happen.  We can have forgiveness, healing, love, compassion, and a feeling of closeness.  It can defuse fights and prevent future fights, because feedback leads to much, much better communication.


Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, serving clients in Springfield, Chicago and throughout Illinois.  She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones. Contact her for more information here.