The Four Horsemen Blog Series – #3 Defensiveness


Welcome back to the Four Horsemen Blog Series. This is the third of four posts in this series. Be sure to read about the first horseman, Criticism, and the second horsemen, Contempt.

The Third Horseman – Defensiveness

Defensiveness is traditionally defined as being very anxious to challenge or avoid criticism. I would also call it an attempt to avoid criticism. Why the emphasis on the word attempt? It’s because challenging and avoiding criticism through defensiveness doesn’t work.

Dr. Gottman defines defensiveness as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, he identifies the different types of defensiveness as denying responsibility, making excuses, disagreeing with negative mind reading, cross-complaining, rubber man/rubber woman, yes-butting, repeating-yourself syndrome, whining, and body language.

Here are a few examples he gives in the book:

Sue: “We don’t ever have people over for dinner anymore. You’re so antisocial.”

Bob: “No, it’s just that you never clean up the place so we could.”

Bob: “Lazy! You never help with the dishes.”

Sue: “That’s not true, you’re the one who never helps.”

Do these examples sound familiar? Take the quiz below to see how defensive you are.


Quiz: Are You Defensive?

Take this quiz soon after an argument or disagreement with your partner when your actions and feelings are fresh on your mind. Or think about the last argument you had and recall it with as much detail as possible. Answer YES or NO for each of the following 22 questions.

1) When my partner complained, I felt unfairly picked on.

2) I felt misunderstood.

3) I don’t feel that I get credit for all the positive things I do.

4) What went wrong was actually not that much my responsibility.

5) To avoid blame, I had to explain why and how the problem arose.

6) I felt unfairly attacked when my partner was being negative.

7) When my partner complained, I realized that I also had a set of complaints that needed to be heard.

8) My partner’s negativity got too intense, too much, too out of proportion.

9) My partner was too touchy, got feelings hurt too easily.

10) There was some truth to my partner’s complaints, but it was not the whole truth.

11) When my partner complained, I though “I am innocent of these charges.”

12) When my partner complained I felt I had to “ward off” these attacks.

13) I felt obliged to deny the complaints against me that were inaccurate.

14) When I listened to my partner’s complaints I thought of complaints of my own that weren’t getting any attention.

15) My partner’s views of the problem were too self-centered.

16) I thought, “What you say only bounces right off me.”

17) When my partner complained I tried to think of ways to protect myself.

18) When my partner complained I thought of a way to reexplain my position.

19) When my partner complained I thought that if my position were really understood we wouldn’t have all these issues.

20) It seems that all my partner can do is find fault with me.

21) Sometimes it feels like my partner is coming at me with a baseball bat.

22) During a hot argument I keep thinking of ways to retaliate.

Scoring: If you answered YES to more than 7 items you are probably a good candidate for using contempt.

Credit: This quiz is featured in the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman, PhD.


How Did You Do?

Don’t kick yourself if you come to your own defense. Being defensive naturally follows the first two horsemen. When you view your partner as being critical or contemptuous, you naturally want to defend yourself.

When you are being defensive, Dr. Gottman points out that you are essentially saying, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you” and is a way of blaming your partner. Your intentions for defending yourself may be to get your partner to apologize or lay off of you; however, your defensiveness will only intensify the conflict.

If phrases like, “It’s not my fault”, “I didn’t do anything wrong”, and “No, I didn’t” are becoming commonplace in your relationship, defensiveness has settled in. Even if you feel as though you are completely in the right when you make these statements, they are having a negative impact on your relationship.


The Antidote to Defensiveness

Accepting responsibility, even for a small part of the problem, will help save your relationship from the third horsemen. How about we take this advice and apply it to the examples above? Let’s give it a try…

Sue: “We don’t ever have people over for dinner anymore. You’re so antisocial.”

Bob: “Maybe I have been a little distracted lately. Why don’t we clean the place up and have Matt and Karen over next Saturday?”

Bob: “Lazy! You never help with the dishes.”

Sue: “You got me! Dishes are my least favorite chore. I’ll try to do better.”

If you have made a habit of responding in defense to your partner, turning it around can be difficult. But, as with all the previous antidotes given, it takes practice.

If you have been outspokenly defensive in the past, your partner may be confused and distrusting of your newfound responses and try to challenge you by being even more critical.

But, I don’t think you should go at this task alone. This is something that you can work with your partner on. Chances are, both of you are defensive at times.

Here’s an easy task to get started on the path to eliminating defensiveness from your relationship. Sit down together and create made up dialogue like the examples above that demonstrate defensiveness. Then work together to come up with a non-defensive response in which the person takes some responsibility.

Once you feel competent in crafting the appropriate responses in these made up situations, come up with real-life examples where each of you have been defensive within your relationship. Begin with identifying a time when you have been defensive and write down, to the best of your ability, the dialogue that you remember. Replace your defensive response with a non-defensive response in which you accept some responsibility. Then have your partner do the same. When you both have finished, discuss how the different responses affect your attitude toward your partner.

If you find that you are unable to get anywhere with this exercise, it may be helpful to enlist the support of a couples therapist to help navigate you and your partner through these difficult interactional patterns. Sometimes it can be tough to get started on your own because the way you interact with your partner has become so entrenched over the years. But, don’t fret; couples therapists are trained to help you through your most difficult times with great success.


Hopefully you have learned about defensiveness and how to handle it in your relationship. Next up in the series will be Stonewalling, the final horsemen.

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