Being Too Defensive In A Relationship Can Ruin It. Here's How To React Instead

Relationships are not always hearts and flowers. Chemistry — or surface-level sparks — is all it takes for two people to fall for each other and step into a relationship. But compatibility — the ability to look outward together in the same direction — is what keeps two people together when chemistry wears out. If you want to see how compatible a couple is, look at the way they communicate with each other when their relationship is in a trough.

Nowhere is the lack of compatibility in a relationship manifested as clearly as in communication. Honest communication is key to a healthy relationship in the long run. But for many couples, honest dialogues usually result in conflicts that can ultimately lead to breakups. That's because humans are hard-wired to feel defensive when we receive critical feedback. It's perfectly normal to feel tempted to jump to our own defense when someone — a stranger or a loved one — points out our shortcomings. 

A coping mechanism, defensiveness is a reaction to a perceived criticism. There are often two ways to react: you can either deny an accusation and blame it on someone else. Or, you can rationalize the feedback and work on it. Unfortunately, most of us choose to dodge responsibility when people call us out. Over time, defensiveness can foster a hostile environment that eventually results in distrust and separation. If you want to stay in a relationship, you must learn to stop being defensive and start becoming more receptive. Here's how to do that.

Identify your triggers and work on them

Awareness of your weaknesses is the key to overcoming them. To know what triggers you, put your finger on the situations where you get defensive with your partner and how you respond to criticism from your partner. When you identify these triggers, you can physically distance yourself from them and regulate your emotions better. For example, when your partner tells you things about yourself that you don't agree with, you are tempted to harbor resentment for your partner, act passive-aggressively, or point the finger back at your partner to justify your actions. The next time you're tempted to get reactive, remind yourself that you're in defensive mode and it's not going to get the conversation anywhere. 

While it is natural to feel defensive in the face of tough comments, you do not have to respond defensively or react right away. It makes you come off as immature, puts off the people with the best of intentions, and discourages them from being honest with you next time around. You don't have to be completely ready to own up to your mistake and apologize, but it would be wise to put yourself in your partner's shoes and acknowledge what the person has just told you.

Try to hear your partner out

When you're defensive, you have the tendency to interrupt your partner. It's not easy to practice active listening, but it's a crucial skill in relationship management and stress management. No matter how tempted you are to snap back at your partner before they finish their sentences, calm your urge by all means and hear them out. One way to do this is to consciously slow down your breath and slowly count from one to 10 in your mind before blurting out anything. If possible, repeat counting. The point is to buy as much time as possible until you can't take it anymore and start interrupting your partner.

If you're worried you'll forget what you wanted to say, write down your thoughts and takeaways from your partner's sharing. Taking some notes when you're anxious can help you feel more grounded and less tempted to react rashly.

Having said that, when you really don't feel in the mood to engage in a potentially tense conversation with your partner, gently let them know. Maybe you've had a rough day at work or you're juggling with too much on your plate and you're just not interested in taking some more flak from your loved ones. Engaging in a no-holds-barred dialogue with your partner when you're mentally tapped out only makes things worse. You can always have a constructive conversation later when you're both mentally and physically prepared.

Practice self-compassion

One way to soften your self-defensive tendencies is to practice self-compassion, meaning you extend yourself the same kindness and patience that you would show a friend or loved one. At the end of the day, "to err is human and to forgive is divine," says 18th-century poet Alexander Pope. We are all fallible as humans, and we need compassion to get back on our feet and right the wrong. 

Being compassionate toward yourself helps you become less critical of yourself, manage your stress better, and avoid the negative thinking patterns that hamper your real growth. When you're at peace with your vulnerabilities, you no longer feel the urge to jump to your own defense when someone points them out to you. Although it's good to reflect on what your partner says about you to see where you have fallen short, it's equally important to externalize your inner critic and acknowledge that it's perfectly normal to make mistakes. Besides, everyone needs input to grow. If you can switch from a victimized way of thinking to a growth mindset, you will feel thankful that someone cares enough about you to expose you to your imperfections so you can improve and become the better version of yourself.  

Always assume good intentions

Many people lack the ability to share feedback in a way that best reflects their good intentions. This is even truer when the feedback is given through text messages, where subtle nuances can get lost in translation. Therefore, when you hear your partner point out an unwholesome trait about yourself, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the best of intentions. Assuming best intentions also allows your partner to engage in a constructive conversation, and you will be more likely to get back on the same page and resolve your issues successfully. "The important thing to remember about having disagreements is that it is you and your partner against the problem, not you versus your partner," says mental health counselor Tracey Lickfelt from Centerstone.

For instance, when your partner tells you that you've gained weight, don't jump to conclusion that their feedback comes from a bad place. Maybe you've been leading a sedentary life, and your partner suggesting that you exercise more is just their way of caring about your health and wanting you to become a better version of yourself. Feedback is part of life and it's essential for actualizing your potential. If you can't take feedback, you won't be able to succeed in any environment, whether it's in your relationship or your workplace.

Leave out counter-criticism

When your partner starts airing their grievances regarding your behavior, address things one by one and structure your response around their arguments. Do not criticize your partner just for the sake of undermining the validity of their arguments and making yourself look better. Counter-criticism is a low blow that guarantees no real progress. If you have a complaint to express, save it until the next talk when you've had time to reflect on the information or at least wait until it's your turn to speak. The moment you counter-criticize your partner while they're complaining, you've opened the Pandora box. Your arguments will just get more heated and convoluted.

While explaining yourself, refrain from using "but" words, which contradicts all that comes before it and can make you come across as defensive. For instance, if you say "I'm sorry for what I did, but you must understand that you were also at fault here" — people will not perceive what you say as an honest apology but rather a form of counter-criticism. At the end of the day, remind yourself that you are navigating these disagreements with your love partner — not your enemy. If your ultimate couple goal is to live in harmony under the same roof for eternity, you need to stop becoming hell-bent on proving your point all the time. It's okay to go through a problem-solving phase as a couple at times, but make sure you wrap it up on a positive note.