Is Defensiveness Wrecking Your Relationship?

Through his research, Dr. John Gottman found that distressed couples tend to use destructive behaviors in their conflict discussions, which leads to conflict escalation.  He calls these behaviors the four horsemen, after the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse. They include criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.  We first covered the effects of criticism, while in this blog, I’ll focus on the second of the four horsemen, defensiveness.

Defensiveness is one of the most difficult of the four horsemen to manage, because it is a protective response that we use when we feel attacked.

It can show up in a couple of different ways:

-the counter-attack: You’re wrong.  Here’s why.

-by taking an innocent victim stance

Brene Brown, PhD, does a great job of explaining why we blame (which is a defensive move) in this short video.

The antidote to defensiveness is to verbally accept responsibility, even if it’s only for a small part of the problem.  This can create quick de-escalation, as long as you don’t follow it with a counter-attack or whining.

The problem with defensiveness is that it is a way for us to avoid taking responsibility for our part of the problem.  It almost always leads to escalation of the fight and leaves both partners feeling unheard.

Stay tuned for the continuation of this series, covering the other horsemen: contempt, and stonewalling!


Jackie Dunagan, LAMFT