Communication — 23 July 2007
Reducing defensiveness improves your relationship

Defensiveness is a fear-based reaction intended to protect the individual from perceived threats – yet it often creates great interpersonal difficulties. Being in a relationship with a person who is defensive is challenging. Both partners can learn more effective interactions to reduce defensiveness and increase safe, authentic exchanges.

Feeling defensive springs from either the fear of losing the other’s esteem or from the fear that another person shares one’s own poor self-regard.

Everyone gets defensive sometimes. We do so when we perceive, correctly or incorrectly, that the other person thinks less well of us than we desire. The need to get back into the other’s good graces causes the defensive posture and creates the justifications, explanations and even occasional attacks.

In a love relationship, any reduction of the spouse’s continued positive view of us is profoundly threatening and feels like it should be dispelled at once to avoid loss of love.

People who are routinely defensive frequently perceive criticism, discounts or blame directed at them by others. They may have been either raised by critical parents who fostered their sense of inadequacy, or by inattentive parents who failed to validate their worthiness, competency or lovability or were emotionally harmed by others.

Researchers explored methods for reducing defensiveness since it was identified as a barrier to effective personal relationships, work interactions and even one’s health.

Dr. Will Schutz is the creator of one of the most effective interpersonal programs to alleviate failed verbal exchanges. The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation, (FIRO), first used to help U.S. Navy improve relationships among battleship command teams and later revised for individuals, was built on the theory that increased self-awareness reduces defensiveness in conflicted situations.

Research by Dr. Jorgensen and others discovered that defensiveness is a health hazard as it is associated with elevated blood pressure.

In relationships, once a partner becomes defensive, he or she is no longer dealing with the current issue, but rather attends to a personal agenda of redeeming him/herself. This individual’s personal concern disrupts the connection between the pair and their task at hand.

For example: Partner A: “I am wondering why the repair person did not call back.” If partner B hears this as a veiled criticism of his/her failure to call the service provider he/she may reply: “I did call two days ago and if you don’t believe me, you can check with the company.” Partner A: “I didn’t say I don’t believe you.” Partner B: “But you believe it is my fault”. At this point the issue about the need for the repair got derailed into issues of reassurance about trust and honesty.

Usually both partners end up feeling badly about themselves and each other and are left bewildered by having been derailed into an irrelevant argument. Partner A reassurances about trusting B are unlikely to reduce partner B’s feeling of hurt about being discredited.

• If you or your partner are defensive, most likely the fear of inadequacy or the fear of judgment prompted this reaction.
• Monitor your inner dialogue. When you recognize your feelings of insecurity or doubtfulness about your worth, ask for appreciation rather than react sarcastically or accusatorily.
• Label your feelings of defensiveness when they occur and ask in a non- accusatory way that your mate rephrase what felt uncomfortable for you.
• Say: “I feel defensive when you ask me the question that way. How would I know why the repairperson did not call? I prefer that you tell me that you are anxious about the repair getting done and we could then negotiate taking the next step.”
• Understand that your partner’s defensiveness is a reaction to painful feelings about him/herself. Do not call your mate ‘defensive’ or get insulted. Be kind to your mate in distress.
• Since your partner’s defensiveness comes from personal vulnerability it is not about you and cannot be changed by you. Be respectful – it may help your partner feel safer.
• Praise each other often and appreciate your unique traits and talents. Feeling more valued reduces the frequency of insecurity and defensiveness.
• Speak openly about how much you respect and care for one another even when the other errs. The basis of a love connection is a deep appreciation, not capitalizing on errors or weaknesses we all have.
• Though reduction of defensiveness is an individual task, a supportive, affirming mate can create an atmosphere conducive to such a change or motivate the mate to seek individual help.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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