Guest Post: Hannah Noble
When I married my wife, Dawna, it brought out a side of me that I had never known before: defensiveness. I saw how much my defensiveness was hurting my partner and pushing her away. I was confused and frustrated by this side of me and I didn’t know what to do about it. I learned the humbling news from the well-respected marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, that defensiveness is one of the main predictors of divorce.
I wanted to find a better way, so I set out on a journey to try and learn how to overcome my defensiveness. I don’t have it down perfectly, but I’ve gotten much better. In this article, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned, based on the science of what happens to our brains and bodies in long-term, romantic relationships.
Why You Get Defensive
When I was preparing to write this article, I asked my wife to share with me what stands out about my history of being defensive. Without skipping a beat, she shared, “In our first year of marriage, I couldn’t give you any feedback without you immediately becoming defensive.”
You can sense that this was not a good recipe for maintaining a close connection. She deserved the space to be able to openly share feedback with me about our marriage, without me immediately becoming defensive. But why was this happening??
It was happening, because the fear center of my brain was being activated.
When someone gets defensive, the fear center in their brain has been activated, which leads to a fight-flight-freeze response in a person’s mind/body system. The fight-flight-freeze response gets activated to try and keep us alive. There is a part of the brain, below the level of consciousness, that is always scanning for a threat.
When it detects a threat, the fear center gets activated. This is the part of the brain that has kept humans alive for millions of years. Modern humans still have this part of the brain, and it is very easily triggered in romantic relationships, because romantic relationships are coded to represent survival.
Common areas that can activate the fear center (leading to defensiveness) in marriage include:
- House Chores
- Managing time
- Extended Family
- Feeling misunderstood
- Feeling judged
- Feeling alone
- Feeling out of control
- Feeling not good enough
I grew up in a very strict, religious household, where judgement was something I frequently experienced. So if my fear center senses even the slightest bit of judgment from my wife, I can easily be triggered and sent into that fight-flight-freeze state, leading to defensiveness. Money was also a stressor for my parents, so conversations around money are more likely to put me into a defensive state as well.
It’s important to note that this happens in the blink of an eye and is outside of a person’s conscious control – it’s not something that a person chooses; it just happens. It’s a protective response gone haywire. It’s like a dog barking at a mailman. The mailman is not a genuine threat, but the dog instinctually wants to defend against the mailman.
Defensiveness is Fear-Based
The fight-flight-freeze response is trying to defend and protect you from an enemy. So, who becomes the enemy when you get triggered by your significant other? You guessed it….your significant other!
The person you love the most very swiftly becomes your “enemy” in conflict (at least that is what the physiology in your body is having you believe!). Your mind/body system is trying to defend you from this “enemy,” just like the dog is trying to defend against the “mailman enemy.”
In particular, there are two common signs of defensiveness, which include:
Changes in physiology:
When the fear center gets activated, the physiology in your body changes as well. There is a rush of hormones that puts you in a defense mode. You might notice a change in your body, for example: tense shoulders, avoiding eye contact, fidgety hands, folded arms, a change in vocal tone, and shallow breathing in the chest.
When you are in a defensive mode, it’s easy to get trapped in the, “I’m right and you’re wrong” game. This is because your brain (below the level of consciousness) is convinced your partner is your enemy. Of course you need to defend yourself against your enemy! The spirit of cooperation, empathy, and compassion that you usually have towards your partner has left the building.
That’s because in order of importance – survival is always going to be prioritized over cooperation. Again, the mind/body system has gone haywire. Your system is trying to protect you, but of course it’s actually leading to more disconnection in your relationship.
Practical Ways to Overcome Defensiveness
Thankfully, there are a number of practical ways to overcome defensiveness, five of which are highlighted below.
The first step is to self-soothe. Self-soothing is a way to bring your body from a state of fight-flight-freeze to a state of well-being where you can listen, be present, and empathize with your partner. Self-soothing techniques are ways to bring a feeling of calm to your body (even if it’s just a little bit calmer!). If your fear center has been activated, it is wise to self-soothe before you continue to engage in the conflict.
- Go on a walk
- Slow down your breathing
- Take a bath
- Notice the way your feet feel on the floor
- Notice smells or sounds in the room
Strategies Your Partner Can Help With:
- Ask for a tight hug (if that feels good to you)
- Go on a walk together
- Take some deep breaths together
- Use sense of humor to break up the tension
- Ask for reassurance about a certain fear or insecurity
- Reflect on a positive memory you share
2. Notice the Impulse
Start to notice what the impulse to defend feels like in your body. When I first started working on being less defensive, the impulse was SO strong within me. I felt so much tension in my body. Slowly but surely, I’ve learned to notice the impulse to defend, slow down, and make the choice to not act on it. Meditation has helped me get better at this.
3. Use Curiosity
It’s going to feel tough, but give it your all to try and better understand your partner’s perspective. If you’re having a hard time doing this, I recommend asking curious questions like, “Can you tell me more about what ________ is like for you?” It’s essential to learn to make space for your partner to share.
Practice being open and receptive to your partner’s experience (even if you totally disagree with it!). View your partner as your teammate rather than your “enemy”.
My wife and I have a podcast where we dive headfirst into using curiosity to try to better understand each other’s perspectives – we get very vulnerable about all the real parts of marriage that usually don’t get discussed. (Check out Closeted Conversations With My Wife.)
4. Acknowledge Your Emotions
Underneath defensiveness is often a well of emotions. When I find myself being defensive, what is really going on is that I am afraid or sad. These are often emotions from childhood that have been triggered. Take time to acknowledge your emotions. Share them with your partner, if that feels safe to do.
If you are having trouble using these strategies on your own, therapy may be helpful. Couples therapy has been very helpful for me and my wife, but I’ve actually found individual therapy to be more helpful for getting to the root of how my childhood relates to why I can get so defensive. When you find a therapist you feel safe with, consider being honest with them about your tendency to be defensive.
I have not been able to find one magic pill for curing defensiveness, but as I learned about the science behind it and started practicing new strategies, I’ve been able to become less defensive and far more connected with my wife. Good luck and be kind to yourself in the process!
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman
- Wired for Love by Dr. Stan Tatkin
- Widen the Window by Dr. Elizabeth Stanley
- Closeted Conversations with My Wife [podcast by the author]
About the Author: Hannah Noble is a podcaster and an Occupational Therapist. She has her B.A. in Psychology and her Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy. Her very favorite thing to talk about is relationships. She has a podcast called ‘Closeted Conversations with My Wife’ where she and her wife let you into the secret world of marriage that rarely gets talked about. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri and she would love to hear from you: [email protected]