Health & Medicine

Dial back on defense

A reader recently wrote to me. “I want to address emotional issues with my husband,” she said. “But he always gets defensive when I bring up certain topics. He’ll say, ‘You do the same thing,’ or ‘Excuse me for not being perfect.’ I feel so frustrated by his behavior. Nothing ever gets resolved.”

Defensive statements are hostile and aggressive words we hurl at our perceived accusers when we feel emotionally threatened. We may challenge their competence, bring up their faults or deny any wrongdoing as we attempt to divert the conversation away from our psychic underbellies.

Each of us has issues we feel sensitive about. Some of them are justified; your children plead with you to quit smoking but you angrily tell them to mind their own business. Other issues are contrived; a capable mother may be hyper-sensitive about her parenting skills and snap at her husband’s tiniest suggestion. Whatever the source, the sensitivities are the same. We’re upset when the topic is brought up and lash back with hurtful, defensive remarks.

In fact, it’s the degree of our sensitivity that determines the defensiveness in our responses. If we’re moderately concerned about a problem, our defenses will be weaker than if we’re mentally up in arms. Even if the issue is relatively minor, we can still imbue it with a heavy duty punch, flattening the unsuspecting plaintiff with the ferocity of our words.

Defensive behavior seldom fixes interpersonal problems.

It tends to make things worse. Not only do you have the initial issue. Now one member of the relationship is poised and ready to strike — never a good time to bring up dicey topics.

It’s unproductive to challenge the defensiveness. Defensive folks already feel threatened. Admonishing them for being angry only makes the situation worse.

It’s equally destructive to argue about the content of what’s been said. Defensive statements are inherently packed with irrational and disturbing ideas. Facts are skewed and exaggerated to prove a point. Analyzing the truth or falsehood of those words only heightens negativity and directs your resources toward an unwinnable conflict.

Instead, acknowledge the increased agitation and do your best to turn down the flame. Only then will you be successful in breaking down the defenses and making real progress in your relationship.

Tips for dealing with defensiveness

To work through your partner’s defensive behaviors, start with these ideas:

Stay calm. Keep your own emotions in check and avoid engaging in your partner’s battle. Take a deep breath and relax your hands. Your composure is your biggest ally.

Profess your willingness to make things work. Say, “I want things to get better with us. You are so important to me.” When partners understand you have their best interests at heart, their agitation suddenly decreases.

Be complimentary. Comment on areas of your relationship that you enjoy. Point out several of your partner’s strengths. Couching the issue in a positive light will help defenses melt away.

Don’t get sidetracked. Defensive people want to divert your attention to any topic other than them. Avoid arguing about the charges they hurl your way. Explain, “I understand what you’re saying. We can discuss that at another time. Right now I’m interested in this topic.”

Use “I-messages.” Begin sentences with “I feel ” or “I’m concerned ” or “I need ” They’re less likely to be perceived as threatening, and more apt to elicit the cooperation you want.

Watch your tone. Talk in a pleasant, nonthreatening manner. Select words that express your sincerity and concern and help defray the tension.

Back off if you’re unable to proceed. Know when you’re not making progress and let the matter drop. There’s no use trying when all paths are blocked. Wait to discuss the matter at a later date.

Recognize some issues may not be resolvable. Not every problem has an answer. Focus on areas in your relationship that are successful. Let this one fade into the background.

Get professional help. Some issues can’t afford to be tabled. They’re core to the relationship’s survival. If you must address a problem but are met with impenetrable defenses, enlist the help of a specialist to open avenues of communication.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit