Strengthen Your Relationship: Stopping Defensiveness in Its Tracks

Meet Kathleen, married for six years. 

Kathleen was anxious about her upcoming presentation for an important work project. And like many of us, she can be a little short and snippy with her partner as her anxiety and stress gets ramped up. Her husband Carlos realized she’s been under a great deal of pressure, and this understanding helped give him perspective. He was (for the most part) able to remain emotionally centered while Kathleen’s anxiety and brusqueness increased.

At one point, however, Kathleen’s husband felt particularly stung by something Kathleen said (or the way she said it), and the defensiveness he was keeping at bay suddenly broke through and rushed over him. But he didn’t have to say anything to indicate what had just happened. Rather, Kathleen immediately saw it in his face. And with this realization, she did something that prevented an argument from ensuing.

Preventing a Breakdown in Communication

In that moment, Kathleen realized the impact her words and attitude had on Carlos—an awareness that she utilized to smooth things over and keep their emotional connection intact. Kathleen immediately acknowledged that she had just treated him unfairly (she took ownership for being insensitive) and then she added, “Carlos, please stay with me emotionally; I need to feel you close to me as I prepare for tomorrow.”

Carlos was able to hear what his wife needed because Kathleen took ownership of the communication effect she was having on him. Taking ownership of her missteps allowed the defensive knot that was tightening within Carlos to loosen, a loosening that enabled him to shift from a defensive-reactionary mode of relating into an receptive-empathic stance.

Empathy requires emotional receptivity, an open heart that allows you to receive your partner’s experiences unencumbered and undistorted by your own. It was this openness that enabled Carlos to reconnect with his wife and to refocus on what Kathleen was needing during this stressful time.

Couples who get caught in negative interactive cycles do so for the following reasons:

  • They don’t realize the impact their words/actions have on each other (a lack of awareness and empathy fuels a downward spiral);
  • Because of their own hurt/wounding, one or both partners momentarily stop caring about the negative impact they are having on one another (an indifference to the other’s feelings has set in). And in some instances, our anger may lead us to deliberately act in hurtful ways (an eye-for-an-eye mentality).

For a period of time, Kathleen wasn’t aware of the emotional impact she was having on Carlos (feeling emotionally overwhelmed and anxious led her to become increasingly self-absorbed, rather than an empathic, other-focused stance). But once she realized she had upset her husband, Kathleen made the conscious decision to undo her communication faux pas rather than fall victim to her own defensiveness—a defensiveness that would have fueled a cycle of negativity between her and Carlos.

Effective couples communication centers around awareness—an awareness of the impact your words and actions have on your spouse/partner (both positive and negative). Sometimes this awareness will come in the form of noticing certain behavioral cues/reactions your partner has to something you’ve said or done (like Carlos’ tense facial expression); and, at other times, this awareness will come in the form of direct verbal feedback from your partner (“Please don’t speak to me in that disrespectful tone of voice”).

Once aware of the negative impact you’ve had on your partner, to prevent a further breakdown in communication, it is important to take responsibility for what transpired (even if you had the noblest of intentions for saying what you said)–and try to forgo the urge to blame your partner/spouse for his/her reaction (“God, you’re so sensitive…”; “Jeez, it was just a joke. Lighten up!”).  Judging someone for their emotional experience (for example, verbally lashing out because something you said or did upset your partner) is the ultimate anti-ownership behavior and will only fan the fires of marital/relationship conflict, fires you should be trying to put out.

(Featured image courtesy of Stockimages at

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