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How to Connect When Your Partner Is Being Defensive

Couple arguing
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistJanuary 29, 2020

You talk – and your partner reacts defensively. Getting your concerns across to them is like trying to deliver a message to a brick wall. Communication about any issue is impossible, creating increasing distance in your relationship. Still, you love them and want the relationship to work. So, how can you get through?

As you may have discovered on your own, you cannot force your partner listen to you. Logic dictates that when pressing forward does not gain you any ground, you would be wise to stop pushing. Instead, try connecting with them first.

Use the questions, prompts, and example, below to help guide you through responding in this way.

What is your reaction to your partner’s defensiveness? And how does this play out?

Olivia sees that every time she expresses an opinion different from Arjun’s, he thinks she is being critical of him and he attacks her. This infuriates her, and she tends to attack back. Before she knows it, they are in an all-out battle.

How does the world look through your partner’s eyes? What are their thoughts and feelings?

Ask your partner to describe their experience so that you can fully understand it.

Despite knowing that Arjun thinks she sees herself as better than him, one night Olivia decides to ask him more about his experience rather than arguing about it not being true. He explained that he felt like she was putting him down and that her matter-of-fact tone of voice was condescending. This made him angry.

Reflect what you’ve heard until your partner responds with some version of, “Yes, that’s it.”

If you don’t fully understand or your partner indicates that you don’t fully get it, ask for – and be open to – further clarification.

It was hard for Olivia to put her own anger aside, but she could do it well enough to understand that her tone could send the wrong message. She told him this. She also said that given his frequent self-doubts (that he had shared with her), she could understand how he might see her as basically agreeing with those self-doubts and also being condescending. As she expressed this, his angry expression changed. His face seemed less tense, his eyes looked sad, and he nodded slightly.

Focus on empathizing and expressing how it affects you to see their perspective.

Olivia said that it made her sad to see how much she upset him. She was also sad that he had so much self-doubt. The truth was that she had great respect for his opinions and abilities. “I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.”

Express how your partner’s response is affecting you.

Be sure to focus more on your experience, not on what you think your partner is doing wrong. Also, check to see if your partner understands your experience. Describe it more if necessary. If you partner becomes defensive, it might help to again validate what they are saying before returning to your experience.

“Arjun, while I get what you are saying, it makes me feel hurt and angry when you respond like you do. I’m also frustrated because we can never seem to fix or solve any problems.”

Ask for the change you want, being as specific as you can be.

“I’ll work on letting you know that I respect your opinion before I share mine. If you work on really listening to me and talking through things with me without being defensive, then I think we will feel closer. And I will definitely be happier.”

As you might have noticed, in this approach to talking with your defensive partner, you begin with communicating in a way that helps them feel understood and emotionally safe. This will reduce their need to defend themselves, leaving them open to communicating more openly with you. 

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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