9 Ways of Dealing With A Defensive Husband or Wife

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‘Why are you always so defensive?!’ Jane exclaimed.

They’ve been together for four years and her partner Mark’s defensiveness only got worse.

Maybe you’re like Jane, feeling frustrated and stuck:

  • My husband gets defensive when I tell him how I feel
  • I can’t talk to him without him getting angry

You’re also wondering:

  • Why does my husband get defensive?
  • How do I deal with a defensive husband?

The good news is that we can lead you to the answers you’ve been looking for. In fact, there are practical steps you can take to turn this situation around.

We get it, it’s exhausting to be stuck in such an emotional roller-coaster. What can you do? Read on to find out how you can deal with this defensive behavior from your partner.

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Why does my husband get defensive?

Growing up, I was scolded for the tiniest things. Unfortunately I internalized this, believing up into adulthood that I’m a complete ‘mess-up’.

Even when Jachym and I made great strides in our relationship, I’d often get defensive and push back. Whenever Jachym sat me down to have a relationship ‘talk’, I’d freak out. Like a knee-jerk reaction, I’d get defensive and guarded.

It didn’t matter if he had positive feedback or constructive criticism, I was ready for a fight. It was tough on Jachym. He might have the best intentions, yet I took things the wrong way. 

When you’re not the one getting defensive, you might not understand why your spouse gets defensive. You might think that there’s something wrong or that they’re hiding something.

We know how tough it is when you don’t know why it’s happening or how to resolve it. That’s why we’ll be breaking it all down so you get the clarity that you need. Read on to really understand the mechanism behind defensive behavior. We’ve got your back so let’s tackle this together.

What’s Behind Your Partner’s Defensive Behavior?
 
To answer this question let’s look at this definition: behavior intended to defend or protect.
 
Whenever someone feels attacked or judged, it can trigger this defending reaction.

Defensiveness comes from us believing we have to protect ourselves.– Jachym Jerie

What Are We Protecting Ourselves From?

 

When we become defensive, it always comes down to one thing:

We’re trying to protect our sense of self.  

What does that mean? What‘s this ‘sense of self’?

It basically means your identity; who you believe yourself to be. If you see yourself as caring, loving and giving, and your spouse is telling you that you’re greedy and self-centered, it’ll feel like a personal attack to you.

Their statements are attacking who you believe yourself to be. What’ll be your reaction to that? You’ll try to defend your identity, by invalidating what your partner just said.

This means you’ll:

  • Turn it on to your partner.
  • Use blame.
  • Tell your spouse that they’ve done the same thing they’re accusing you of.
  • Tell your spouse how they’ve done other things wrong at other times. 
  • Use excuses.

Example

Her: ‘You promised me to clean the bathroom. What happened? It’s still not done.’

Him: ‘Last time I asked you to do the laundry, it took two days. You’re no better than me. Better to clean out your own behavior before you nag me. I was too busy with other things. You just ask too much of me.’

Rather than having a conversation around cleaning the bathroom, he simply turned it around onto her and her faults. He goes on to blame her for nagging him and then finds an excuse. 

It isn’t a pleasant behavior. But keep in mind that:

When your husband gets defensive he feels threatened. 

Notice how we use the word ‘feel’ and not ‘is’ threatened in the previous sentence. How come? You can say things wonderfully neutral and in a non-threatening manner, yet your husband still gets defensive. Why?

Because we don’t hear what people tell us. We hear our interpretation of what they said. 

Here’s an example to illustrate this point.

Her: ‘I know you probably aren’t doing this, but I feel judged by you right now. I feel like you’re blaming me.’

His body language changes and he looks like he’s ready to defend himself. 

Him: ‘I’m not judging you! It’s so hard to talk to you. Why do you always feel like I’m judging you?!’

What happened?

Despite her very nice phrasing, he felt that she was attacking him. He probably didn’t even hear the first part ‘I know you probably aren’t doing this,…’ What he heard was that she’s blaming him for how she feels. 

She isn’t blaming him. She’s only stating how she felt. What she wanted is to have his support through those emotions. 

So what’s the alternative? Here’s one approach:

Example

Her: ‘I know you probably aren’t doing this, but I feel judged by you right now. I feel like you’re blaming me.’

He leans in and asks: ‘I’m sorry to hear that. What happened in our conversation that you feel judged and blamed?’

Do you see the difference between those two scenarios? In the first one, he took it personally. In the second one, he heard what she said and is wanting to help her through those emotions.

Your partner is reacting to their interpretation of what you said, not necessarily the words you used.– Jachym Jerie

Is My Partner Hiding Something When They’re defensive?
 

It’s important to know that your partner’s defensive behavior does not automatically mean that they are:

  1. Hiding something
  2. Feeling guilty about something they did

Yes, your partner may be hiding something. And, it’s also very likely that they’re just feeling threatened by what you’re saying. Not because they’ve done something wrong but because they feel criticized or blamed by you. 

Now, that we’ve addressed the mechanics of defensive behavior, let’s look at what you can do about it.


How Do I Deal With My Defensive Husband?

Imagine knowing exactly what to do to bring your relationship to a better place. No more confusion, hurt and compulsive reactions. You have more control of the situation than you think.

Would you like to know nine effective ways to address the defensive behavior of your husband? Read on to find out.

 
1. Take care of your own reaction

When your partner gets defensive you’ll have your own reaction to it. You either get defensive yourself or you become more aggressive in your communication.
Either way, the conversation is going to crash and burn. If you’d like to know how to communicate better in your relationship, we’ve prepared an article for you here.

To avoid such a disaster, examine your own reaction.

  • How do I feel when my husband gets defensive?
  • How do I react when he gets defensive?
  • What do I say when he becomes defensive?

If you can defuse your own reaction, you have a higher chance to guide the conversation towards a fruitful direction. 

A simple way to diffuse your reaction is to notice it. When you do, breathe, pause, and don’t engage it any further. Relax your body. Stay with the sensations in your body. This will help you stay present rather than lash out at your partner.

2. Check your communication style


How are you addressing your husband? Are you using any of the four horsemen of the apocalypse that John Gottman has defined?
They’re destructive for a relationship if they aren’t addressed. What are they?

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness 
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling

Check whether you’re criticizing your husband personally.

Example

‘You’re just unreliable.’
‘You’re lazy.’
‘You’re so inconsiderate. You never think of me!’

Whenever you make your spouse’s behavior about his character and find fault in it, he’ll feel attacked. 

Check whether you use contempt:

Example

‘Why did I marry you? You can’t even provide for our family. You’re so useless. No wonder you’re being pushed around by your boss, just look at how pathetic you are.’

When you’re used to this kind of communication, it’s really not a nice place to be in. If you’re often speaking with resentment or anger with one another, check out our article about unmet expectations in marriage. A lot of contempt and resentment comes from having unmet needs.

If your communication is improved, and yet your spouse still reacts defensively, read on to find out what else you can do.

3. Be understanding


Yes. It’d be wonderful if your spouse would just stop being defensive. However, they most likely won’t unless you help them out. Consider this:

It’s never pleasant to feel under attack. Whether there is an attack or not doesn’t matter because his experience is of him being attacked.  

Your husband isn’t enjoying his defensive behavior either. His body and mind is experiencing stress when he gets defensive, which is why he tries to protect himself. 

The more you get that his defensiveness is a distress signal, the more likely you can help your spouse out. Don’t forget, you’re a team. Work through this together even though it hasn’t been pleasant so far.

Just because you’ve felt hurt by your partner, doesn’t mean that you can’t heal and resolve this current issue. The more you bond together with empathy and understanding, the more successfully you can find a resolution. So put the misunderstandings aside and get perspective on the bigger picture again.

4. Become curious

Do you make this common mistake?

‘You always get defensive. How are we ever supposed to talk this out? You just don’t listen and blame me instead.’

Why does this not work?

You’re reverting back to criticism. It’ll make your husband even more defensive, or even lead to him shutting you out (stonewalling).

What can you do instead? 

Him: ‘Why are you blaming me for this? Don’t you see that I have other things to do? All you can do is nag me.’ 

Her: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t want to make you feel stressed out. I know you have a lot of things to do.’

Him: ‘Exactly, then why are you pushing me to clean the car?’

Her: ‘I didn’t want you to feel pushed or stressed out at all. I’m sorry if I came across this way. How did I communicate with you that you felt this way?’

Why does this work?

  1. She’s keeping her cool.
  2. She’s diffusing the situation and ignoring his defensiveness. 
  3. She’s trying to understand what’s happening for him.

We hope you understand that this isn’t an easy task if you’re riled up yourself. Which is why you need to take care of your own reactions first. 

Note that we aren’t advocating to have your boundaries violated. You have every right to be clear about what you don’t tolerate in a behavior. But this kind of conversation is better suited for another time: when one or both partners aren’t triggered and feeling defensive.

5. Show Care


Remember? When someone gets defensive they’re in distress. 

It’s important to show them that you have no malicious intention. Your spouse might not get it at first that you’re not trying to harm them. They’re ready to defend themselves. If you put more oil on the fire by being aggressive, he’ll be pushed even further into the corner. One communication tool that can do wonders is to simply listen and make him feel heard.

Your partner might be blaming you, but don’t forget that what they’re going through is really unpleasant. Since you do love and care for your spouse, tap into that emotion.

6. Stay Calm and Assertive


When you feel threatened, your body will react to it. This means that your spouse might not see your good intentions at first if they’re already fired up.
In this case, it’s vital to stay calm and assertive. Show them through your love that you’re not there to hurt them. 

Be patient with your partner as it may take them a few rounds to actually get what you’re trying to say.

Instead of feeling like you’re the victim, take the lead.– Natasha Koo

Gain control of the situation by connecting to the type of relationship and interaction that you want to have with your partner. Remember, you create your marriage. The marriage doesn’t control you.
 
7. Take Ownership of Your Own Behavior


We all make mistakes. It’s normal. 

But it’s important to acknowledge those mistakes. If you’ve used criticism against your husband, apologize for it. The situation can quickly diffuse when someone simply owns their mistake. 

It communicates to your partner that you’re a team and that you respect them. I know that apologizing isn’t always fun. But it’ll bring you closer as a couple, and do wonders for your relationship.

Jachym and I do this all the time. Yes, that’s right! We mess up and then apologize to each other regularly. You might first think that this is a flaw, but think again. By immediately addressing something that you know wasn’t right, you’re setting things straight quickly and efficiently.

Instead of getting angry for days or holding negative emotions against the other person, we are resolving the issue and connecting back to love. The goal isn’t to avoid or eradicate any conflict or problems in the relationship.

The skill that we are teaching you is to be able to face any issue in the future and always be able to heal, love and feel deeply connected again. Taking ownership and apologizing without your ego getting in the way is just one step towards an exceptional relationship.

8. Take a Break

Sometimes both of you lose sight of each other. You see the other person as the villain and you’re at each other’s throats. Whenever you feel yourself getting emotional and know that it will only escalate, call for a break. 

Make sure you have ample time to calm down (at least 20 minutes). Remember your body releases all kinds of chemicals when it perceives a threat, even if that threat is not physical. Therefore, it makes sense to allow your body to calm down so that you can go back into the conversation with a clear mind.

Know yourself and know each other. When you aren’t at your best to resolve the defensiveness, then pick it up at a better time.

Remember that you always have options and so many choices are available to you. Don’t force yourself to make your relationship better. With our tips, you can go about it smartly.

9. Agree to Stop this Behavior

Yes, it’s great to have all those other tools we’ve given you. However, it’s even better to have your spouse on board to stop this negative behavior. Have a conversation with him to see what you can do together to address this behavior.

The solution can be as simple as being ok to have your partner call out the defensive behavior when it occurs. The calling out doesn’t mean belittling or criticising the other person. Identifying and naming it brings awareness to the pattern.

Defensiveness is an impulse, the more you become aware of it happening, the more you can work through it together. It’s another way to help each other to stop this pattern.

We’re emotional creatures, so at one point or another, this defensive response is expected to happen in a relationship.

Don’t beat yourself or your partner up about it. What matters the most isn’t the problems that you’re facing at the moment, but what you’ll do about it.

Good news!  By now, you’ve learned the different reasons why your husband might get defensive. We’ve also given you nine ways to address defensive behavior. If you don’t know where to start, do this today:

Review the nine approaches above and mark down what resonates with you. Most likely, a few will stand out to you. Trust your instincts and commit to one of them this week.

For example, you might focus on being more understanding as your husband acts defensively. This gives you plenty of time to reflect and notice what you’re doing, how you can bring more understanding to the situation and also how your partner reacts when you do.

Repeat and commit to another approach the following week and you’ll make some incredible progress.

Remember, you’re not powerless to this situation. You have every tool at your disposal. What you choose to do next will either help your marriage or keep it stay the same.

Face your fears and take action.

Apply the tools and make a difference.

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