Couples Conflict Management: Why Defensiveness Doesn't Work

A relationship conflict can start anywhere, any time — and there’s no telling where it will stop. One of the most common couples conflict accelerators” (communication mistakes that make the situation worse very fast) is defensiveness.

Imagine you say to your partner: “You’ve been home late every night this week.”

What would a defensive response to this look like?

“I have not been late every night!” (Denial) “I don’t know what you expect. I have a stressful job and you know that.” (Rebuttal)

“What about me? What about my job and career? I don’t have a choice about staying late. I have to come home and take care of things around here. Someone has to be responsible.” (Counterattack)

Hence, the main strategies of defensiveness:

1. Denial: “I didn’t do it/say it.”

2. Rebuttal: “You are in the wrong.”

3. Counterattack: “You do this to me, too.”

4. Escalation: Fight or flight, then shutdown

If a couple conducts its conflicts in this way, one defensive statement will lead to another, and soon accusations and hurtful attacks turn the conflict into an all-out fight.

Depending on your personalities, and your position in the power dynamics of the relationship, you will tend to prefer fighting or running away, but quite probably you will end up doing both at different times.

The final stage is communication shutdown. Bad feelings, resentment and sometimes hopelessness as to how to resolve the issue, are the result.

If you want to learn how not to act/react defensively, you need to first explore and understand why this is happening.

Goals of defensiveness

The main goal of a defensive response is not to have to engage with the issue. The larger goal is not to have to engage with the person who is trying to talk to you. It’s a verbal “keep out” sign.

And while defensiveness can be part of an abusive power play (a way of never letting the less dominant partner voice their side and be heard) most of the time, defensiveness is caused by fear.

What are defensive communicators afraid of?

  • Not being safe

“If I open myself up to this, I will get hurt.”

  • Not being heard

“No matter what I say, my partner won’t listen so it’s better to cut it off a.s.a.p.”

  • Not being understood

“If I try to explain myself, my partner will not get it and accuse me even more.”

  • Not being forgiven for mistakes (even small ones)

“If I admit to this small mistake, my partner will feel entitled to punish me.”

In fact, defensive partners feel the exact emotions that their behavior induces in others.

How to respond constructively to defensiveness

Responding to defensiveness with rebuttals, counterattacks and withdrawal will turn your living room into an episode from a courtroom drama. There is a reason why the American court system is called “adversarial”: The opposite party is your enemy whom you must vanquish at all cost.

It can happen very easily. It takes patience, courage and love not to fall into the same pattern.

The most important thing to remember: Conflict between couples is not about winning or losing, but about exploring, understanding and if possible, resolving the issues.

Even more, it is about understanding each other:

  • Why is my partner so upset right now?

  • What prevents me from hearing his words as a question, instead of as a criticism?

  • What is she afraid of that prevents her from openly engaging with me?

  • How can I help to make our relationship a safe space where we can voice our concerns, stay curious about each other’s feelings, and start to see conflict as an opportunity to get to know each other even better?

This is the way to start managing your couples conflict constructively.