Has conversation in your relationship deteriorated to a point of causing pain and discomfort? Do you find yourself grappling with the emotional strain of discussions that should be simple, yet somehow spiral into confusion and hurt? For many couples seeking therapy, this scenario is all too familiar. The root of these recurring conflicts often lies in defensive communication, a key factor that obstructs understanding and empathy, turning even mundane exchanges into sources of distress.

This article is designed to help you with communication in your relationship by providing guidance on identifying and ending defensive communication patterns. Through a series of realistic examples, we will look into numerous defensive communication patterns, illustrating not only how they manifest and perpetuate within relationships but also how they can be effectively addressed and resolved. By eliminating defensiveness, couples can reduce escalating conflicts, emotional distance, and distrust.

Defensive Communication – Deflection and Disruption

Defensive communication in relationships often manifests in two primary forms, as Deflection or Disruption. While both play a significant role in communication breakdowns, they operate through different mechanisms. Deflection operates by evasion and sidestepping issues, whereas Disruption functions by manipulating conversation dynamics or the reality of the situation. Recognizing these strategies is crucial for addressing the roots of poor communication in a relationship.

Deflection

Deflection, a key defensive communication strategy, is typically achieved in one of two ways. The first is through a conscious shift away from engaging with the issue at hand. The second method involves redirecting the conversation onto topics that puts the other partner on the defensive. While these new topics may be relevant or legitimate in their own right, they sidestep the immediate issue. As a result, the original problem remains unresolved, often replaced with the airing of new disagreements. This cycle perpetuates the feeling in some partners that ‘issues are never resolved’ and ‘we can’t communicate about anything’.

Group 1 – Avoidance Maneuvers

These maneuvers typically involve shifting focus onto other topics or people – including the speaker, evading responsibility, or disengaging from the conversation.

  • Denial: This involves outright denying an issue, accusation, or problem. It’s a refusal to acknowledge the validity of the other partner’s concerns or feelings.
  • Stonewalling: This strategy involves choosing to withdraw from the conversation as a way to avoid conflict. It can manifest as silence, leaving the room, or refusing to participate in the discussion.
  • Deflecting Responsibility: This involves shifting the blame to external factors, or even to the partner, to avoid taking personal responsibility for one’s actions or behavior.
  • Minimizing: Acknowledging the issue but minimizing its significance or impact, thus reducing the validity of the partner’s feelings or concerns.
  • Conversation Trapping: Prohibiting the other from taking a break or time-out during escalating arguments. This tactic prevents de-escalation and forces the partner to engage under stress. This is an avoidance maneuver because it hinders with fostering the space needed to cool-down and refocus conversation back on to the original concern.

Group 2 – Evasion Through Counter-Attack

This group includes responses that retaliate to a partner’s concerns or grievances, often by bringing up a complaint of their own, to divert the conversation away from the original issue.

  • Counter-Complaining: This occurs when one partner responds to a complaint or concern with a complaint of their own, effectively diverting the conversation away from the original issue.
  • Parroting Complaints: Recycling a complaint just spoken by the partner and using it against them. While it might be a valid concern, it dismisses the speakers concerns.
  • Reviving Stalemate Arguments: Bringing up old arguments known to end in a stalemate or put the other partner in the wrong. This tactic diverts attention from the current issue and focuses on an unrelated, unresolved dispute.
  • Deflective Responsibility Shifting: This tactic involves a partner responding with, “What do you want me to do/say?” as a means of avoiding genuine listening, taking responsibility, or engaging constructively. It quickly shifts the responsibility for finding a solution back onto the other person, thereby dodging their own involvement in resolving the issue.

 

Disruption

Disruption involves maneuvers that manipulate the reality of a situation or interrupt the flow of a conversation. These strategies are more active in their approach, often altering perceptions or directly sabotaging the process of healthy dialogue. They tend to create feelings of being manipulated, misunderstood, hurt, and quickly bring about heated conflict. While the emotions felt might well be legitimate in their own right, like deflection, such actions sidestep the immediate issue. Consequently, this approach leaves the original issue unresolved and the couple with new injuries to heal. These patterns reinforce the belief that ‘I can’t bring anything up’ (aka walking on eggshells) or ‘everything ends in an argument’.

Group 3 – Manipulation of Perception

“Manipulation of Perception” strategies aim to alter the way the partner views the situation, often undermining their confidence or perspective.

  • Victim Blaming: This defensive tactic involves turning the tables and blaming the partner for causing the problem or for their feelings about the problem.
  • Gaslighting: A more severe form of defensiveness, gaslighting involves manipulating the partner to doubt their own thoughts, feelings, or sanity. (Learn about manipulative relationships here)
  • Inaccurate Mirroring: This involves exaggerating or misrepresenting a partner’s emotions (e.g., claiming they are yelling when they are appropriately upset) to discredit their feelings or perspective and shift the topic onto their emotions.
  • Exaggerated Victimhood: Instead of taking appropriate responsibility, the partner disparages themselves or overstates their own faults, avoiding constructive engagement or validation of the other’s concerns.

Group 4 – Communication Disruptors

Communication Disruptors are maneuvers that directly interfere with the process of healthy communication, often through belittlement or distraction.

  • Sarcasm and Mockery: Using sarcasm or mockery to deflect or belittle the partner’s concerns or feelings. (Learn about emotionally abusive relationships here)
  • Pre-emptive Anger: Responding to a partner’s approach with anger, eye-rolling, or impatience, often before they have spoken. It’s used to throw the partner off balance and discourage issues from being raised. (Learn about emotionally dysregulated relationships here)
  • Arguing the Example: When asked for an example of their behavior, the partner deflects the conversation to the specifics of the example rather than addressing the underlying issue.
  • Rationalization: Offering excuses or justifications for one’s behavior that dismiss or minimize the partner’s concerns.

The four groups of defensive strategies illustrate a progression from relatively common behaviors to more detrimental ones. Initially, tactics like avoidance and counter-attacks, while not ideal, are quite common and can frequently stem from stress or discomfort. However, when strategies evolve into manipulating perceptions and actively disrupting communication, especially if they occur regularly, they raise concerns about the presence of manipulative or emotionally abusive relationship. Such behaviors, if persistent, point towards deeper issues that may necessitate careful attention or professional intervention.

Examples of Defensive Communication

In this section, we will explore various instances of defensive communication through illustrative examples. Using fictional couples, we will demonstrate both unhelpful and constructive responses to defensiveness.

Example 1: Denial

This involves outright denying an issue, accusation, or problem. It’s a refusal to acknowledge the validity of the other partner’s concerns or feelings.

  • Concern Raised: After agreeing to cut back on spending, Alex sees Jordan’s expensive purchase. “We agreed to reduce our spending and yet I see you have made an expensive purchase.
  • Jordan’s Defensive Response [Denial]: “We never agreed on that. You’re mistaken.
  • Emotional Response (Alex): “I can’t believe you’re lying about this. We literally had this conversation this week!
  • Healthy Response (Alex): “Jordan, I am confident that we had a discussion about reducing our spending earlier this week. It’s important to me that we both acknowledge and respect the agreements we make. Denying our conversation doesn’t help us solve this issue. Let’s take a moment to revisit what we agreed upon and understand why this purchase was made despite our agreement. It’s crucial for the health of our relationship that we communicate openly and honestly about these matters.

Alex’s emotional response of accusing Jordan of lying intensifies the conflict, as it focuses on blame rather than resolving the misunderstanding about the agreement. Alex needs to manage feelings of frustration and disbelief. His Healthy response calls out Jordan’s denial by reaffirming the existence of the conversation and expressing how Jordan’s response affects him. It also emphasizes the importance of mutual acknowledgment and respect for agreements in the relationship, and invites Jordan to revisit the conversation to clarify any misunderstandings. This approach focuses on resolving the issue through open communication while maintaining respect for each partner’s viewpoint.

Example 2: Minimizing

Acknowledging the issue but minimizing its significance or impact, thus reducing the validity of the partner’s feelings or concerns.

  • Concern Raised: Alex discusses Jordan’s tools being scattered. “Can we keep your tools in one place? They’re all over the house.
  • Jordan’s Defensive Response [Minimizing]: “It’s just a few tools. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.
  • Emotional Response (Alex): “You always dismiss what I say! You don’t respect our shared space.
  • Healthy Response (Alex): “Jordan, when you say it’s just a few tools and imply that I’m overreacting, it feels like my concerns about keeping our shared spaces organized are being dismissed. It’s important to me that our home is tidy and that we both contribute to maintaining it. The presence of tools scattered around the house affects how I experience our shared space. Can we find a solution together, like designating a specific area for your tools, so that our home feels comfortable for both of us?

Alex’s emotional response that Jordan dismisses his concerns and doesn’t respect shared space creates an accusatory tone, which can lead to further defensiveness rather than a solution. Alex needs to handle feelings of being disregarded and undervalued. His Healthy response addresses Jordan’s minimizing by clearly stating how it makes Alex feel and reiterating the importance of the issue. It also shifts the focus from confrontation to collaboration, inviting Jordan to be part of the solution. This approach helps maintain a constructive dialogue while asserting the validity of Alex’s feelings and concerns.

Example 3: Counter-Complaining

This occurs when one partner responds to a complaint or concern with a complaint of their own, effectively diverting the conversation away from the original issue.

  • Concern Raised: Emma comments on Liam’s frequent late nights at work, “I feel like you’re always at work late. I miss spending time together.
  • Liam’s Defensive Response [Counter-complaining]: “Well, you’re always busy with your friends on weekends. What about that?
  • Accommodating Response (Emma): “I guess I do spend time with my friends. Maybe it’s not fair to ask you to come home earlier.
  • Healthy Response (Emma): “Liam, I understand that you might feel I spend a lot of time with my friends on weekends, and we can certainly talk about that. However, it’s important for us not to deflect from the issue at hand. My concern is about us not spending enough time together due to your late nights at work. I miss our quality time, and it’s something we need to address. Let’s focus on finding a balance that works for both of us, and then we can also discuss the weekends separately.

Emma’s accommodating response overlooks Liam’s deflection of her original concern, allowing the issue of spending less time together to remain unaddressed. Emma needs to manage feelings of disappointment and neglect. Her Healthy response effectively calls out Liam’s counter-complaining by acknowledging his point but firmly bringing the conversation back to her initial concern. It shows a willingness to address both issues but emphasizes the importance of dealing with them individually to ensure that each concern is properly heard and addressed.

Example 4: Reviving Stalemate Arguments

Bringing up old arguments known to end in a stalemate or put the other partner in the wrong. This tactic diverts attention from the current issue and focuses on an unrelated, unresolved dispute.

  • Concern Raised: Emma addresses Liam’s behavior with a coworker, “Liam, I feel uncomfortable with how much attention you give to your coworker, especially when you cancel our plans to help her. It seems like you prioritize her over our relationship.
  • Liam’s Defensive Response [Reviving Stalemate]: “This is just like when you were constantly texting your gym friend, John, last year. We never resolved that issue, and you said it was harmless. Why is it different when I do it?
  • Accommodating Response (Emma): “That situation with John was different, but maybe you’re right. I shouldn’t be upset about this.
  • Healthy Response (Emma): “Liam, I understand you’re referring to the situation with John, and I agree that unresolved issues need attention. However, right now, I’m trying to express my feelings about a specific behavior that’s happening currently. It’s important for us to address each concern separately to avoid confusion and mixed feelings. Let’s focus on the situation at hand – your attention to your coworker and how it’s affecting our relationship. We can set aside a different time to revisit past issues and ensure they are resolved too.

This response acknowledges Liam’s point but firmly redirects the conversation back to Emma’s current concern. It emphasizes the need for addressing each issue individually, without allowing past unresolved arguments to overshadow the present discussion. Emma’s approach maintains a constructive dialogue, ensuring that her immediate concern is addressed while also acknowledging the importance of resolving past conflicts.

Example 5: Gaslighting

A more severe form of defensiveness, gaslighting involves manipulating the partner to doubt their own thoughts, feelings, or sanity

  • Concern Raised: Daniel expresses concern to Sarah about a change in their social dynamics, “I’ve noticed you’ve been really distant lately at social gatherings. Is everything okay?
  • Sarah’s Defensive Response [Gaslighting]: “Distant? You’re imagining things. I’ve been the same as always. I think you’re seeing things that aren’t there or just being insecure. I see no change.
  • Conflict-Avoidant Response (Daniel): “Maybe you’re right. I might be overthinking your behavior.
  • Healthy Response (Daniel): “Sarah, when you suggest that I’m imagining things or being too sensitive, it feels like my observations and feelings are being invalidated. I’m confident in what I’ve noticed about your behavior at social gatherings, and it’s important for me to express this concern. Let’s try to understand each other’s perspectives here. If there’s something that’s causing you to act differently, I want to be supportive. But dismissing my feelings isn’t helpful for either of us to communicate effectively.

This response calls out the gaslighting by directly addressing how Sarah’s remarks are making Daniel feel dismissed. It reaffirms his trust in his own perceptions and reiterates the importance of open and honest communication. By suggesting a mutual understanding, Daniel keeps the focus on resolving the concern while maintaining respect and empathy in the conversation.

Example 6: Exaggerated Victimhood

Instead of taking appropriate responsibility, the partner disparages themselves or overstates their own faults, avoiding constructive engagement or validation of the other’s concerns.

  • Concern Raised: Daniel, feeling concerned, brings up a delicate issue, “Sarah, it seems like there’s been a distance growing between us, especially in terms of intimacy. I’ve been feeling a bit disconnected from you. Have you felt this too?”
  • Sarah’s Defensive Response [Victimhood]: “I guess I’m just not attractive enough for you anymore. I’m sorry I’m not meeting your needs. I must be such a disappointment for you.
  • Conflict-Avoidant Response (Daniel): “No, no, that’s not what I meant. I didn’t want to upset you. Forget I said anything.”
  • Healthy Response (Daniel): “Sarah, when you talk about yourself like that, it concerns me because it’s not at all how I see you. You’re not a disappointment to me. However, it’s important that we don’t avoid this conversation. My intention in bringing this up isn’t to criticize, but to express that I miss our closeness. I’m here to understand and support you, not to make you feel bad about yourself. Let’s try to talk openly about what might be causing this distance without judging ourselves or each other.

This response calls out Sarah’s exaggerated victimhood by acknowledging her feelings but gently steering the conversation back to the initial concern. Daniel reassures her of his view of her and emphasizes the importance of addressing the issue openly and supportively. This approach helps to refocus on the actual issue while maintaining a compassionate and understanding tone.

Example 7: Arguing the Example

When asked for an example of their behavior, the partner deflects the conversation to the specifics of the example rather than addressing the underlying issue.

  • Concern Raised: Megan addresses a pattern she’s noticed, “Michael, I feel like you often dismiss my ideas during our discussions. It’s making me hesitant to share.
  • Michael’s Defensive Response: “When did I ever dismiss your ideas? Give me one example.
  • Megan provides an example: “Well, last week when I suggested a new place for dinner, you quickly said no without considering it.
  • Michael’s Defensive Response [Arguing example]: “That’s because I had a long day and just wanted something familiar. Why would I want to try something new when I’m already exhausted?
  • Megan’s Response [caught up in Arguing example]: “But the place I suggested was quiet and relaxing, perfect for unwinding. You didn’t even consider it.
  • Healthy Response (Megan): “Michael, I understand that there was a specific reason last week for your response. However, the concern I’m trying to raise isn’t about that one instance alone. It’s about a general pattern I’ve felt where my ideas aren’t given consideration. It’s not about proving each case but about the overall feeling that my suggestions often seem dismissed. I value our discussions and want to feel that we can both share and consider each other’s ideas openly.

This response addresses Michael’s focus on the specific example by acknowledging it but then clearly redirects the conversation to the larger pattern Megan has observed. It emphasizes the importance of discussing the general feeling of being dismissed, rather than getting entangled in the specifics of each instance. This approach helps to keep the conversation focused on the underlying issue and encourages a more productive dialogue about their communication dynamics.

How To Improve Communication in a Relationship

Defensive communication patterns are hard to change for two reasons. First, the concerns raised in defensive remarks are frequently legitimate and can contain valid points, which can make them hard to dismiss outright. Second, defensive statements tend to provoke strong emotional reactions. Since people are generally more driven to address intense emotions rather than the original topic of discussion, this emotional aspect can overshadow the main concern. However, it’s essential to resist being consumed by the heightened emotions or the new issues that defensiveness can bring to the forefront. When one partner’s concerns are repeatedly ignored, it obstructs the path to resolution. In such instances, both partners are faced with a critical choice: confront the issue directly or tacitly participate in its avoidance.

Working together to overcome defensive communication

The most crucial step in curtailing defensive communication is to thoroughly acquaint yourself with the 17 types of defensiveness discussed earlier. Strive to become adept at identifying them. Agree as a couple to collaboratively detect signs of defensiveness, and positively reinforce the one who first acknowledges it. This mutual effort not only helps in mitigating defensiveness but also steers you both towards the more open and understanding form of communication that is foundational for the relationship you both aspire to have.

How to stop engaging in defensive communication

If you find yourself resorting to defensive strategies in your relationship, it’s essential to pause and reflect on what’s driving these behaviors. Commonly, these maneuvers stem from a desire to protect oneself from perceived criticism or vulnerability. Emotions like fear, insecurity, or a sense of inadequacy can often be at the root. You might rationalize your behavior as a way to maintain control or avoid confronting uncomfortable truths about yourself or the relationship. However, it’s crucial to recognize that these defenses, while offering short-term relief, can harm trust and intimacy in the long run. By acknowledging your feelings and the underlying reasons for your defensiveness, you open the door to more honest and constructive communication. It’s about shifting from a mindset of self-protection to one of mutual understanding and growth.

What to do if your partner is defensive

If your partner frequently employs defensive strategies, it can be challenging and disheartening. Common reactions might include feelings of frustration, sadness, or a sense of being undervalued. You may rationalize your partner’s behavior as a phase or attribute it to stress, thus avoiding addressing the issue directly. It’s important to understand that while empathy is valuable, enabling these patterns can prolong the cycle of poor communication. Recognizing these defense mechanisms for what they are is the first step. Approaching the situation with empathy, expressing how these behaviors affect you, and setting boundaries can be more productive. Demonstrate healthy dialog by acknowledging your partners concerns but calmly redirect conversation back to your original topic. Doing so fosters equality and effective conflict management.

When to seek professional help for defensive communication

If you recognize these or more subtle defensive communication strategies in your relationship, and find that they’re creating persistent misunderstandings, resentment, or emotional distance, it may be time to seek professional help. A marriage counselor can offer a neutral space for both partners to express their concerns and feelings safely. They provide tools and guidance to break these defensive patterns and foster healthier communication. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength and commitment to improving your relationship. It’s about equipping yourselves with the skills to navigate conflicts constructively and deepening your understanding of each other. If these issues feel overwhelming or if you’re struggling to address them on your own, contact either myself or a marriage counselor in your area. We are here to help you in your journey toward a more fulfilling partnership.