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How to Defuse Your Partner’s Defensiveness

coupleWhen people feel they’re being attacked, their natural stance is to defend.  But what if your partner finds any feedback or criticism to be an attack?  How do you communicate?  Here are some tips:1)  Most importantly, KEEP COMMUNICATING.  One of the things I often notice with my clients is that in the face of a partner’s defensiveness, they start to clam up.  “It’s hopeless, why bother,” is a common sentiment.

What that means is, they definitely won’t get through because they’re no longer trying.  Giving up, over the long haul, has an extremely detrimental impact on the relationship, and on the person who’s now stifling his/her feelings.

2)  So keep trying, but in new ways.

Couples enact the same repetitive patterns, and that’s because the people in them tend to.  Meaning: You do this, he does this, and around and around, over and over.   Do the same behaviors, you’re destined to get the same results.

Make a vow to switch it up.  If you’re going to screw up, make it a new screw-up.

3)  Recognize what role you might play in the defensiveness you’re encountering.  Is there a theme to what upsets your partner and makes him/her shut down?  If you think objectively about not just your word choice but your tone, is your partner rightfully sensing an attack?

Recognizing that fundamental truth (people defend when they feel  attacked), analyze your own behavior, both verbal and non-verbal.

4)  Think of a different approach you could use.  Try it when you’re not in the heat of battle.

A good approach is to treat it like a collaborative problem.  Talk about it in terms the dynamic: When I do this, you tend to do this…  If you can start by identifying your role, that can go a long way toward getting the other person to acknowledge his.  You want to be a team, instead of adversaries.

5)  Tell your partner directly that you’re having trouble communicating with him/her.  Ask for feedback about how you can communicate better.  State your positive intentions: “I love you, and I want us to be able to talk about whatever’s bothering us.”  Let your partner know that you never mean to step on his/her sensitivities but your relationship needs a more open dialogue.

Put all these together, and you should be on your way.   If you go through them all and are still encountering significant roadblocks, it might mean that some couples therapy is in order.

I always advise couples to do that sooner rather than later: when there’s still love and investment, rather than going in when you’re at your absolute lowest point and ready to give up.  Timing is everything.

Couple talking image available from Shutterstock.

How to Defuse Your Partner’s Defensiveness

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2014). How to Defuse Your Partner’s Defensiveness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jan 2014
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