Stopping the Defensiveness Dance in Your Relationship

Are you stuck in a relationship where both of you are very defensive?  If so, you know moving closer is difficult because before you must maneuver around a series of walls.

How can you move forward? Many people have found success by learning to overcome the inevitable difficulties that come with the natural defensiveness that occurs in relationships.

What’s Happening in Real Time?

  • Ensure your focus has a here-and-now orientation. You can avoid the pitfalls of either of you drudging up the past by keeping to the present. Also, it is a good idea to commit to addressing criticisms when they occur, instead of out of context and as a weapon.
  • Healthy confrontation involves a degree of humility. Taking a superior position or a one-up position opens the door for attack and closes the door to fulfilling relationship. Nobel Prize winning philosopher, Martin Buber, refers to this positioning as an I-It relationship. In this form of  relationship, one person objectifies the other to serve the interest of the individual. In contrast, he discusses an I-Thou relationship in which both meet one another in their authentic existence with respect.
  • Make sure you demonstrate a genuine interest in the other. In each encounter, find ways to help the relationship win. Ask questions or offer feedback indicating you understand the other.  If you do not, you will perceive each confrontation as an attack, instead as an opportunity.

What’s Predictable?

  • It makes sense to know the “music” that you and your spouse “dance” to. Reflect on when the “tune” starts and what words, phrases,  looks, or topics seem to put you in lockstep.  Given your usual  pattern of conflict, you can prepare yourself by expecting a reaction  like blame, “legitimate” excuses, or a distortion/ exaggeration of your point. Take time to consider how helpful your former reactions have been and focus on the better ways you’ve responded in the past.  Then, choose to take a deep breath, refuse to fight back, and look to respond in a way that values both yourself and your relationship.

Remember,  you can only change yourself. It’s a lesson to be learned over and over.  As unsettling as this can be, a commitment to changing and accepting yourself offers liberation. While not always obvious, defensiveness needs a partner. Indeed, the very cycle of attack invites the other to defend with a counterattack. By changing the way you dance, however, you free yourself from these patterns. Defensiveness implies a need to be protected. The best protection you can give yourself and your spouse is knowing that you are strong and brave enough to respond rather than react.


Conley, R. (2014, June 29). Defensiveness Is Killing Your Relationships – How To Recognize It and What To Do About It. Retrieved from

Gunther, R. (2017, May 17). En Guarde-How Defensiveness Can Destroy Love. Retrieved from

Contributed by Angela Blocker , M.A, LMFT Associate

Clinical Supervision by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT, LPC


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