Defensiveness is an attempt to prevent an attack, but in doing so, actually creates one.
Defensiveness is when we’ve not bought our partners the bananas we promised we would (some people really are that passionate about bananas), and they gently ask us if we’ve got them, and we fear that they’re going to make noises about it so we snap, “I couldn’t get your damn bananas, I was really busy. Why don’t you go and get them yourself?”
When we defend ourselves the other person usually feels attacked. Defensiveness is actually a form of attack. If you were like me, when you first heard this, you may find yourself thinking “Really? I can be defensive, but I’d never attack anyone, I’m just sticking up for myself”. The sooner we can own our own style of attacking another person, the more conscious we can be around it, and the better our relationships will be. We have all at some point in our life attacked someone. We don’t go through life without getting into a few scraps. It’s what makes us human, and getting truthful about it is what makes us conscious.
Defensiveness is like wearing armour head to toe and expecting others to not bat an eyelid (that’s tricky, right?), or feel pushed away.
Many arguments between couples are caused by defensiveness. It’s a real problem.
So what’s the alternative?
There’s two alternatives.
Firstly, you need to ask yourself: Am I responding to their actual criticism (1), or am I reacting to imagined criticism from them (2)?
If it’s (1). That’s really difficult. Getting criticism is really hard for us, and defensiveness is actually a perfectly natural response. However it’s really important that you find a way to respond that doesn’t put you on the back foot. This is where assertiveness comes in.
Getting defensive is like trying to stand your ground whilst jumping out the window. It doesn’t work.
Assertiveness is about standing still, neither charging forwards, nor dropping back.
If someone criticises you, and it’s unwarranted it’s vital that you stay away from explaining your actions (this is where defensiveness begins).
It’s about strongly stating the facts. In this case if you partner starts moaning at you for not buying the bananas, then it is about stating: “I didn’t buy the bananas, I’m sorry”. It’s about acknowledging our mistake briefly. If they persist then it is about stating a simple boundary: “I can hear your annoyance, but I’m now not discussing this any further”. Defensiveness has the tendency to spiral the argument out of control.
If it’s (2) then it’s about taking back our projections. You can do this by asking: who did they become in this moment? Was it dad, a bossy older sister or a grumpy uncle? It’s about owning the part of you that has learnt to expect criticism from others, and getting conscious enough about it so that you do not continue to act it out.