Defensive behavior is one of the leading causes of on-going painful conflicts within a relationship, the type which can lead to long term damage. Defensive behavior sends the message to your partner that their experiences and ideas are wrong, and that you are in the right. However, as you may have seen, in these situations, a well meaning defense can quickly turn into a battle where each side is unwilling to give in.
The Communication Battle Attack:
History is full of those moments when a true defense was necessary. In romantic medieval times, when a person was attacked, they defended themselves. They pulled out their armor, a shield and sword, and prepared to do battle. This response was due their desire to protect their own safety. Thinking back to the previous situation, when during an interchange if your partner is in a defensive position, it is generally because they don’t feel safe and possibly feel attacked. This leads them to put on their armor for their own protection, and then pick up their own sword and attack. This situation is what I call a “Communication Battle.” Situations such as these break down the family unit and place the combatants on opposing sides, fighting against each other in a vicious pattern, one that creates little positive communication.
Defensive behaviors can also be a sign of deeper communication issues. Sometimes, no matter how carefully someone addresses an issue with you, you automatically go into defense mode. This common response is often learned at a young age; when tough situations arise, each of us naturally reacts in a certain way. This reaction becomes a crutch to help us through situations where we need help coping with our own insecurities. However, we often become dependent on our crutches, and choose to keep them around far longer than they are actually needed. If this sounds like you, it will take more of an effort to remove the crutch and change this behavior.
Defensive Behaviors, like many common communication issues often become exacerbated by poor communication skills. In relationships, it is often easier to point out how your partner needs to change than to work as a team to confront the issue together. The most important thing to remember in this situation is that people change when they want to, not when we want them to.
The key to creating change in unhealthy communication patterns is to create a supportive environment, where both partners are working to communicate effectively. This places responsibility on both partners, allowing each to have a stake in the outcome.
Relationships are like a baby mobile, if you tug on one side, everything changes. If you shift your behavior, your partner will automatically have to shift their behavior in response. Make sure you move in the right direction, allowing you partner’s behavior to move in the same way. All this change is often overwhelming, placing us in situations where we once again start to rely on our safe, comfortable, old crutches. However, no movement can happen if we continually rely on our crutches for support. It may be time to remember how to walk on your own again, leaving the crutches behind. Leaving the crutches behind is not easy, but do not fear, it can be done. Learning to walk unaided again takes a lot of willingness and self exploration, topics which a therapist can assist you with. In my practice, I foster a collaborative exploration in which I ask directing questions; questions which require you to look deep inside, and determine what your crutches are.
Quick Tips to Deal with Defensive Behaviors:
o Keep track of how often you get defensive, use a notebook so an accurate record is kept. What did you say? How was your tone of voice? What was your body language saying? Keeping track helps you become more aware of your own behaviors. Awareness is Key in creating change in life.
o Next time you begin feeling attacked, don’t surrender, withdraw, or attack back. Instead of becoming defensive try to understand where your partner is coming from. Ask meaningful questions about how they feel, and express how you feel.
o Start Individual or couples counseling. You can gain insight and a larger understanding of where this and other negative behaviors come from, why they happen, and how to decrease them.
o Experiment with trying something different. Next time you notice yourself becoming defensive, try doing something different. Notice how your partner reacts. Does he/she react differently? Where they less or more reactive? Look for the smallest change, because changes start small. Remember the mobile, and remember that each change will bring about more changes.
o Of course, no one can be completely rid of their own defensive behaviors; however, we can always decrease our reactivity to create a safe and caring environment for our partner. The safer (emotionally) it is for your partner, the safer your partner will make it for you. They will follow by example.