Defensiveness: A Marriage Communication Problem

Do you ever get defensive when talking to your spouse? Does your spouse get defensive with you? Defensiveness is one of the most common negative communication patterns I see when I counsel couples. The problem is that defensiveness tends to be one of the key communication patterns leading to arguments.

It is human tendency to defend ourselves when we feel accused, attacked, or when we feel a need to clarify something. I don't think most people get defensive because they are trying to be vindictive. Rather, it is a natural response to discomfort hearing something you disagree with. However, just because it is a natural response, doesn't mean it shouldn't be controlled. Couples who can learn to avoid defensiveness will reduce disagreements significantly.

Let's explore some examples of defensiveness. Let's say a wife expresses a complaint or frustration in the relationship, the husband's response is to defend why it was done, or why he was not at fault. The problem with this is that even if the husband feels justified in the defensive response, it will likely be the catalyst for an argument. All the wife probably just wants is a listening ear, validation of what she feels, and feeling respect from her husband. The husband's defensive response sends the message that it is more important that he not look bad than that his wife's feelings are heard and validated. If we are honest with ourselves, defensive responses are self-serving. They are all about saving face, not making the other person feel better.

Another example: a husband starts to express a concern and the wife recognizes some error, misunderstanding, or misrepresentation in something the husband is saying, the wife jumps in to “correct” what he is saying. This is another sure way to start an argument. The problem with this defensive interruption is that it sends the message to the husband that his wife feels it is more important to correct him than to listen. A better reaction would be to listen, avoid the temptation to interrupt, clarify, or defend ourselves, and perhaps take personal responsibility (even if we don’t feel it is entirely our fault).

The three keys to avoiding defensiveness include:

1.    Listen without judgement. Your spouse is bringing the issue up with you because they think you will listen. Do it. In so doing, don't pre-judge what you will not like about what they are saying before they say it. Listen the way a friend would listen.

2.    Validate their feelings. Even if you disagree with how they see things, or if you think they misunderstood something, just validate what they are feeling. That will go a lot further in helping them feel better than any clarification you could offer.

3.    Take responsibility. The adage "take one for the team" can go a long way in overcoming defensiveness. If you get defensive, focus on taking responsibility, even if you don't feel that you are entirely responsible. If you are willing to take responsibility and apologize, the issue will be resolved. No fight will follow, and your spouse will appreciate your humility. If you choose to focus on how your spouse was to blame rather than taking responsibility, you are choosing to be right and fight instead of putting your spouse and relationship first. I don't want to suggest you are to blame in every situation, no matter what your spouse is feeling. However, erring on the side of personal responsibility instead of spousal blame will help your spouse feel loved.

A brief aside: It is of course important for the spouse presenting a concern or frustration to do so in a non-critical manner. Present your feelings about situations, actions, or behaviors; don't attack your spouse.

Far too many spouses get defensive. I think it is because most don't wake up in the morning intending to hurt their spouse's feelings. However, attempts to clarify, smooth over, or defend will likely not be met with a warm reception by your spouse. By following the steps outlined above, not only will you avoid defensiveness, you will also make your spouse feel heard, valued, and loved. Doing more of that will certainly cause arguments to dissipate.

If you want more help in overcoming defensiveness or other communication issues, visit my website to see how I can help:


Jonathan Swinton is an LDS Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He accepts self and Bishop referrals, and is available to provide marriage and family therapy services and weekend couple retreats to anyone interested. He is also available to speak on marriage issues at Relief Society and Ward events. Contact him at Swinton Counseling: 801-647-9951,

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