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"Why is my partner always defensive?"

The other day I had a friend ask me: "Why is my partner always defensive?"

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a seemingly innocent conversation spirals into a defensive showdown with your partner? If so, you're not alone. Defensiveness is a common interaction amongst couples and it is often triggered by the feeling of being criticized. When criticism is present, defensiveness joins the party. In addition to criticism of joining the party, other factors can pull in a defensive response when talking with your partner.

Fear or Presence of Criticism: Criticism can feel like a personal attack, triggering a defensive response as a means of self-protection. Your partner might perceive even the gentlest feedback as an assault on their character, leading them to put up walls and deflect blame. The best tool for reducing criticism or removing it from the conversation is to focus on using "I" statements and communicating the positive need and change you are looking for.

For Example:

-Criticism response: "You left the towels on the ground again. Stop being lazy.

-Positive need response: "I found your towel on the ground again. I feel supported by you when you put them in the laundry basket. Would you try to be more mindful of this?"

Past Experiences: What we have experienced before or what we have modeled to us often becomes repeated in our relationships. If your partner experienced unhealthy conflict and communication dynamics in prior relationships or witnessed interactions like this by their parents, it is possible they do not know a different way of engaging. Defensiveness can become a coping mechanism for them. The good news is that this reaction, response and coping mechanism can be changed by modeling healthy dynamics together and seeking out support from a professional when needed.

Insecurity and Low Self-Esteem: Underlying feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem can contribute to defensive behavior. When individuals doubt their self-worth, they may interpret constructive feedback as confirmation of their inadequacy. Consequently, they resort to defensiveness as a way to uphold their fragile sense of self and protect their ego. If this is happening, I highly recommend seeking out support and/or therapy to help work through this. It's your partner's responsibility to work on themselves and you can encourage them to do this and also model healthy self-esteem.

Miscommunication: Aside from criticism, this is the most common reason defensiveness shows up. Your partner may perceive your words or actions differently from your intentions, leading to defensive reactions based on their interpretation. Clear and open communication can help alleviate misunderstandings and prevent defensiveness from escalating. A key skill to develop to help in this area is to learn the role of active and reflective listening and differentiation.

Feeling Unsupported or Unheard: If your partner feels unheard or unsupported in the relationship, they may resort to defensiveness as a means of asserting themselves. They might believe that being defensive is the only way to ensure their needs and perspectives are acknowledged. Cultivating an environment of empathy and active listening can help address these underlying issues.

Communication, repair, and understanding are key to reducing defensiveness in your relationship.

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