Defensiveness Is Killing Your Relationships – How To Recognize It and What To Do About It

DefensivenessYour defensiveness is killing your relationships and you don’t even realize it.

What? Me being defensive? I’m not defensive! YOU’RE the one that’s always defensive!

That’s a classic defensive response to a piece of feedback. Throw up a wall, rebut the statement, and accuse the other person of the same complaint. The sad thing is many of us react defensively without even thinking about it. In her book, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine points out that we think other people’s bad behavior toward us is intentional, but we dismiss our own bad behavior as inadvertent, a mistake, or unavoidable due to circumstances out of our control. This allows us to feel morally superior to the other person while simultaneously protecting our ego from the possibility that we may actually be incompetent or acting like a jerk.

The Causes of Defensiveness

People react defensively because they anticipate or perceive a threat in their environment, not usually because they’re just wanting to be difficult. Unfortunately, defensive behavior creates a reciprocal cycle. One party acts defensively, which causes the other party to respond defensively, which in turn causes the first party to raise their defenses even higher, and so on and so on. Defensive behavior can be a complex and murky issue. For many people, their behavioral patterns stem from emotional, mental, or personality issues/tendencies developed over the course of their lifetimes (feelings of abandonment, inferiority, low self-esteem, narcissism, etc.).

Beyond the mental and emotional factors, there are types of behaviors that cause people to respond defensively. Defensive communication expert Jack Gibbs outlines six behavioral categories that create defensive responses in people:

  1. Dogmatism – Black and white, I’m right and you’re wrong, either/or, and other kinds of all or nothing thinking and communication cause people to react defensively.
  2. Lack of accountability – Shifting blame, making excuses, and rationalizing behavior leads people to raise their defense levels.
  3. Controlling/Manipulative – Using all sorts of behaviors to control or manipulate people will lead to defensive behavior. No one likes to feel like they are being used by someone else.
  4. Guarded/Withholding Information – When people feel like they are being left in the dark or purposely excluded from having information they should know, they are threatened and will react defensively.
  5. Superiority – Want someone to be defensive? Then act like you’re better than him/her, lord your power, knowledge, or position over them and see how they respond.
  6. Critical – A constant focus on catching people doing something wrong, rather than right, creates a climate of defensiveness.

How to Deal With Your and Other People’s Defensive Behavior

Dealing with defensive behavior can be complex and exhausting because it’s hard to separate a person from their behavior or the situation. And as mentioned earlier, some people’s defensiveness is so deeply rooted in their behavioral patterns that there is little realistic chance they will permanently change. However, there are some helpful strategies we can use to deal with our own defensiveness and that of others:

  • Re-frame the behavior – Rather than label a person’s defensive behavior as bad, understand it for what it is – defensive. Once you understand it as defensive, then you can explore why the person is feeling threatened and work to address the threat(s). One of the reasons we get so frustrated with defensive people is we try to deal with the behavior without addressing the threat that is causing the behavior.
  • Reduce the danger – Once you’ve identified the threat(s) causing the defensive behavior, work to reduce the perceived danger. Be moderate in your tone, even-tempered, empathize with their concerns, be respectful, and respond non-defensively to avoid escalating tensions.
  • Develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence – Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Through self-improvement, counseling, training, or mentoring, explore the causes of your defensive behavior. What are the triggers that make you feel threatened? Having a better understanding of yourself will not only help you regulate your own behavior, it will give you better insight into the behavior of others as well.
  • Replace negative feedback with questions or offers to help – If you have to regularly deal with someone who reacts defensively, you’ve probably noticed that the slightest bit of negative feedback sets them off. Try replacing the negative feedback with a question or an offer to help. For example, instead of saying “Sally, you made a mistake on this report,” rephrase it by saying “Sally, I’m not sure I understand this section on the report. Could you help me figure it out?” Remember, a person acts defensively because he/she perceives a threat. Try to make the situation non-threatening.
  • Move from dogmatism to openness – The less people feel boxed in to either/or, yes/no, right/wrong choices, the less threatening the situation. Of course there are times where things need to be done a specific way, but if you approach the situation with a spirit and attitude of openness rather than “my way or the highway,” you’ll get a more open response.
  • Treat people as equals – Approach other people in a collaborative manner, looking for ways to help them win in the situation. Take time to identify and recognize their needs, discover what’s important to them, and validate their concerns.

Defensiveness destroys relationships from the inside-out. It creates a climate of contention and tension that eventually leads to a loss of trust, alienation, and separation. The opposite of defensiveness, openness, creates an atmosphere of freedom, growth, respect and trust. Identifying the root of defensiveness in our relationships, and working toward addressing and removing those issues, will help improve the overall quality of our relationships and the productivity of our teams and organizations.

31 Comments on “Defensiveness Is Killing Your Relationships – How To Recognize It and What To Do About It

      • Thank you very much for this article.
        It highlights so much and I’ve really been able to reflect on my own behaviour, and I’m hoping excepting I have been a jerk and becoming more emotionally awear will change things for the better.


      • Thanks for your comments Robert. It takes personal courage to examine our own behaviors, identify what needs improvement, and committing to a course of action. Good on you!



  1. Great article..
    (Addressing the comment privately rather than publicly, I think helps reducing Defensiveness)


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  4. Thank you so much for this great insight into defensiveness! My question is what if you just tell the person think using “I” statements eg., “I feel you don’t love me anymore” and that turns into defense that they hand up the phone. They feel it’s something that they didn’t do right–again! It’s gotten to the point where I cannot express myself to my bf without his getting defensive. I tried to ask him to look at my emotions behind the words, and I encourage him to ask himself what is it that I am really sing of him or need from him. This still doesn’t work and we fight all the time because of ” how I say things” which are really not threatening at all. It’s just requiring him to maybe make some change in the relationship and he does like that..he doesn’t feel loved he says, even though I travel across the world and leave my family to spend lots of time with him and I’m always trying to makes things work and communicate and hold it together when he is slipping away. That’s my feeling. What are your thoughts?


    • Hello Maria. It takes a lot of courage on your part to be so authentic – thank you.

      If at all possible, I would suggest you connect with a professional counselor or therapist to help you explore this further. I think the info I shared in the article is a good starting point but it’s not a replacement for professional guidance.

      As I mentioned in the article, people react defensively because they perceive they are threatened in some way. What could be threatening to your boyfriend? If you’re able to pinpoint that particular issue, it would allow you (and him) to take action to address the perceived threat.

      Best wishes to you,



      • I think it’s something called ego, and possibly even his fear of acknowledging truth. I cannot be certain though.


  5. I’m sorry, but it is so exhausting walking on eggshells with defensive people. They are overly sensitive, sometimes for no real reason at all but an overly inflated ego, not humble enough to take constructive criticism, or maybe even a perceived threat that may be only in their head, to the point where they accuse you of thinking and saying things you never even thought or said. Who wants to spend a lifetime walking on eggshells to avoid conflict, but suffer internally at the hands of an emotionally immature person who cannot handle any form of “perceived criticism.” Are you kidding me?!!?


    • Hi Jessie, thanks for adding to the discussion.

      I agree that it can be emotionally draining to deal with defensive people. If we can find out what triggers their defensiveness then we can better understand how to relate to them in more positive ways.

      Take care,



      • What if the trigger Is truth about themselves that they are not willing to admit because it wil all for change, or that they may not be seen in a positive light. So, they twist and turn the truth saying you said something, or were thinking something you never were. Since when did these simple become mind readers ? The defensive one is fine as long as you give them praise and stroke their ego, but as soon as issues become real and call for compromise or change, they shut down, tune you out, or even fall asleep. Even saying, baby.. There is something that is bothering me that we need to discuss… That doesn’t work either! These people are just too emotionally immature to handle the truth. Instead of making people studder over their words in attempts not to offend, they themselves just need to understand the human emotion behind what Is being said and suck it up m, acknowledge they play a role in their as well, and ask themselves, What can I do to make the situation better, instead of running away. Now is not the time to shut down and go hide in a closet with your teddy bear! People will only agree to studder over their words and walk on eggshells for so long !


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  7. This Is Quite Good Ihave Been Defensive All Along And Ididnt Know Why Thanks For Your Insights.


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  11. I am seeing a man we shall call Andy and he gets very defensive when I ask where he works or lives or his daughters name. He changes his character immediately and goes cold towards me and tells me I am being disrespectful by asking and it’s none of my business. ., he then goes on to say I am rude is asking personal questions because it’s disrespectful of me to nosey into his life and him discussing this with me is wrong on my part and I have no business knowing. I feel abused in all of this. Iv walked away. . PS he then goes on to say his daughter and grand kids would be disappointed to know that he was discussing them behind his back. . What is going on here. …. . I don’t even know this man’s surname after 7 months. . He’s married but separated. . . He gets angry at me. .


    • Rachel – Secrecy and defensiveness are huge red flags. It sounds as though he may only want this relationship on his terms, and if that’s true, I think it should cause you to question the health and value of the relationship.

      Best regards,



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  13. He is always defensive. I approach as a question most is the time. trying to understand. Most of these questions r a results of his me me actions.


  14. I have been in a relationship for eight years which has just ended. I am a very open person emotionally l wear my heart on my sleeve and l am not worried about being wrong and saying sorry. I can be defensive at times and very frustrated especially with my ex as he was so righteous and always had to be right all the time. He would never take responsibility for anything. All the rows were “my fault” if l disagreed with him then l was negative towards him. He took it as an affront believing that l never agreed with him which was not the case. I was so exhausted with his defensive angry retort and trying to get my point across that our relationship became so toxic. I could feel the distance between us growing. I knew there was no way back. I felt sad because l felt we did have a lot in common really. But my nature is quite strong and it made him feel threatened l think. I believe he felt l became his persecuted in the end. Tell you the truth because he was always on his moral high ground maintaining that position of he is right l am wrong l did go all out to challenge him and make him feel as l did. But really that was the wrong thing to do but l was exhausted by never being listened to. So the relationship is now dead and buried as l know that he will never change. He bears a grudge like you cannot believe, the resentment bitterness well he must be dying inside. So l felt defeated by it all and he walked out. I have seen him since but nothing much changed so l have told him l want no more contact with him as l need to get on with my life. But l am sad as l do have good memories too. Put it all down to experience and have some alone time and see what life brings me.


    • Hi Sandy,

      I appreciate your courage in sharing this experience and I’m sure other readers will benefit from the lessons you’ve learned.

      When relationships end because of difficult circumstances, I think it’s important to consider the role of forgiveness. It can be cathartic to forgive yourself and the other person for doing or not doing things that contributed to the downfall. It’s been said that “forgiveness is letting go of all hopes for a better past.” We can’t change what has happened, but we can learn from it and move forward in a positive way, applying the lessons we’ve learned.

      Take care,



  15. Hi..I left a comment when I first found this site June 24th. I don’t think it was ever posted. It would not take my email address which is dr_mack@ (yahoo). com……it waited to use a email address I used a few years back when I published a couple of blog post on WordPress. I really hope this post get published because I have been to share my testimony on how i got my lover back …. this is a miracle. So much is going on right now…..but mostly I want say i am so happy. Dr Mack was a great helper when i my Husband broke apart from me but he later came back after i used the service of Dr Mack.


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