I do not think that there is a human being on the face of our planet right now who does not struggle at least a little bit with defensives. Some of us struggle a lot. And defensiveness in marriage is definitely going to make you unhappy and dissatisfied with your marriage. Turns out, it’s not an easy one to overcome either—but today we’re going to show you how.
This week we are gonna call you out and expose this gremlin running around in all our marriages called Defensiveness.
I know what you’re thinking…”I’m not defensive!!” But, that’s the problem right there.
How Defensiveness Works
The Bible says that “A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.” (Proverbs 18:19 ESV) Or we could say a “Wife offended” or “Husband offended”… Once you hit that point where there’s an attack, there’s a known flaw, there’s known issues then it is really easy to become defensive.
So we have some cool stuff to start with because we are really going to break down this defensiveness thing — you have to know the enemy in order to defeat it — and the enemy is not your spouse, the enemy is the defensiveness that happens between you.
Defensiveness happens when four things line up[i]. What I really like about this is that if you take any of these out, you begin to undermine defensiveness in your own life. So the four things are:
- A self-perceived flaw which you refuses to admit
- Sensitivity to that flaw (e.g., you are embarrassed or even ashamed about it)
- An attack by another person (doesn’t have to be a huge attack — could just be a blunt observation)
- The attacker seeing the same flaw which the defender does not want to admit
Defensiveness Could Be a Personality Trait
The first two items above are more characteristic issues: they enter into that area of ways of thinking and/or personality traits. I have a flaw — I do not want to admit to it — and I am sensitive about it. That’s getting into that character realm of things.
Often we might feel quite inadequate around a flaw or at least insecure about it. We certainly do not want to admit it to others and we may not even really admit it to ourselves.
In order to become defensive, that real or perceived flaw has to relate to something that is an important part of my own sense of self or self-worth, and my identity[ii]. It’s like a closely guarded secret that you’re trying your hardest to hide from everyone— maybe even yourself— so when it’s brought to light you instantly try to shoot it down.
So we get defensive in situations in which our identity is threatened.
A classic example is an addiction — even take it on the lighter end of the scale, like a phone addiction. For me to be defensive, go through the four parts:
- I perceive it but do not want to admit to it
- I am sensitive — I do not want it pointed out
- You point it out to me with a harsh edge on your voice because it is a problem that is coming between us
- You see the flaw, and I know that.
And then I am beginning to think, I am an addict. I am a bad husband. Good husbands do not have this problem. I stake a lot of my self-identity on being a good husband and father.
Now we have all the ingredients for defensiveness. So how does this get talked (or fought!) through in a marriage?
Defensive Communication in Marriage
There are two sides to defensive communication: the defensive reaction, and the action which caused it. We need to separate these. Just think carefully about how you either trigger defensiveness in your spouse, or how you respond to your spouse when you are feeling defensive[iii]. Let’s start with the first.
How to Trigger Defensiveness In Your Spouse
Here are some sure-fire ways to put your spouse into a defensive mindset:
- Use words or tone of voice that evaluates or judges the listener (“I see you are on your phone…again”)
- Attempt to control or coerce the listener (“If you don’t put that down I am going to freak on you.”)
- Strategic or manipulative communication (targeting, needling or guilting over it)
- Neutral speech that conveys a lack of concern (#hairflip you’re on your phone again)
- Implications of superiority
- Dogmatism or certainty in your own opinion
- Any behavior that your spouse deems threatening or punishing
- Loud or rapid speech
- Frequent interruptions or corrections
These last 2-3 are typical of conflict scenarios: you’re shouting and demanding in every way you can think of but nothing is getting through, and the angrier you get, the more defensive your spouse gets.
What You Likely Do When You Are Feeling Defensive
And here’s how you’re likely to react when you’re in defense-mode:
- Dismiss your spouse’s concerns (“what, I’m just looking for a place to eat tonight”)
- Denying or minimizing your own responsibility (“People from work keep asking me for stuff”)
- Shifting blame to the attacker (“If you’d be a little friendlier I wouldn’t have to use my phone for an escape”)
- Making excuses (“Why? Other people use their phones way more than me!”)
- Justifications of your actions (“This is how I make a living, OK!”)
How Defensiveness Impacts Marriage
This is one of those “you can win the battle but you’re going to lose the war” scenarios.
Defensive styles of communication lead to increased sensitivity and escalation of the conflict, as the attacker feels like they are not being heard and the defender keeps trying to deflect responsibility[iv].
Where this really hits a marriage in the gut is it is sending a signal to your spouse (when you are defensive) that s/he is not getting through to you. Basically it is an abandonment or rejection signal. It is saying you are alone in what you think because you cannot get through to me. Or it is saying I do not care what you think, go away.
And you thought you were just being defensive!
Researchers have noted a couple important things about why defensiveness really never has anything positive to offer your marriage:
- Defensiveness in one spouse also makes the other spouse more prone to defensiveness, creating a destructive cycle that perpetuates itself[v].
- Couples who frequently engage in defensive communication report fewer positive feelings for each other and experience lower marital quality and satisfaction[vi]
Disarming Your Spouse’s Defensiveness
Once again we’ve created a bonus resource for our much appreciated supporters. This resource shows you how to disarm your spouse’s defensiveness and not only that, but how using affirmation can set the stage in your marriage so that defensiveness becomes kind of pointless.
If you know you are unconditionally accepted, why do you need to be defensive? You don’t. So we talked about characteristic defensiveness, but what about characteristic acceptance in your marriage? That’s powerful stuff. You can get this bonus resource for this episode by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Ok so that’s how defensiveness works to wreck marriages. Now let’s explore how to stop it.
Owning Your Flaws
The built-in objection within defensiveness is that we do not want to be flawed people. Nor do we wish to be seen by the most important people in our lives as being flawed.
If you can change your perspective of marriage to one that includes seeing your marriage as a crucible for personal growth, then you are going to be receptive to the complaints that your spouse makes.
So when she says, “You’re on your phone too much” you can respond differently. You choose to be married because you wish to grow, and your spouse just offered you some feedback that could trigger growth. So instead of becoming defensive, you are now in a position to embrace the feedback even if it hurts.
Remember, one of the core components of defensiveness is a self-perceived flaw which you refuse to admit. When you admit and own the flaw, you are no longer in the position of being defensive.
Part of this is based on the perspective that we are all broken as human beings. So when someone points out one of my flaws, they may do so in a hurtful manner, but because I know that I am already flawed my identity is not threatened.
So there’s an attack but there is no sensitivity because I’ve already embraced my brokenness. Now, I may choose to set a boundary on people who consistently point out flaws in a hurtful way because they are toxic or unhealthy — they’re corrosive — but when it is someone who cares and is normally respectful I can much more readily embrace the feedback.
Believing in Self-Determination
If you’re from a Christian background like us, you may get a little nervous around the idea of self-determination, which is the ability to make decisions without relying on others, and doing things out of your own free will rather than being coerced and manipulated.
We believe in the will of God, but we also believe that God has given to every person the ability to make their own choices. I believe in free will.
In this context, then, you can make choices based on the values that matter to you. As opposed to being forced into things by other people.
So take my phone example, and our definition of how defensiveness happens: someone points out a flaw which you are sensitive to and refuse to admit. Defensiveness says that you can choose to deny the flaw, conceal what is sensitive and try to protect yourself. Self-Determination says that you have chosen to enter marriage, you are invested in the health of that marriage and in the care of your spouse. With this mindset you see the problem as a challenge to be faced together rather than something that needs to be denied, minimized or hidden[vii].
When you see yourself as capable of addressing something rather than as a victim or someone with an unchangeable character flaw, that is a more empowered position to act from. When you see your marriage as part of this in the sense that this is where you get to be seen, warts and all, then you will be even less defensive. In that way, you’re acknowledging this is what you signed up for: refinement, growth, and challenges.
People who show this kind of self-determination generally experience better emotional wellbeing and better relationship satisfaction overall[viii]. Being confident in your ability to face challenges together helps you move past defensiveness and strengthens your marriage across the board.
[i] Glen H. Stamp, Anita L. Vangelisti, and John A. Daly, ‘The Creation of Defensiveness in Social Interaction’, Communication Quarterly, 40.2 (1992), 177–90.
[ii] Stamp, Vangelisti, and Daly.
[iii] Stamp, Vangelisti, and Daly.
[iv] Jennifer Becker, Barbara Ellevold, and Glen Stamp, The Creation of Defensiveness in Social Interaction II: A Model of Defensive Communication among Romantic Couples, 2008, lxxv <https://doi.org/10.1080/03637750701885415>.
[v] Becker, Ellevold, and Stamp, lxxv.
[vi] C. Raymond Knee and others, ‘Self-Determination and Conflict in Romantic Relationships’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89.6 (2005), 997–1009 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117>.
[vii] Knee and others.
[viii] Knee and others.