Defensiveness in Marriage: “It’s not my fault, it’s YOUR FAULT!”


We are all guilty of it.  Defensiveness is often seen in even the best of relationships.

Our partner raises an issue with us they would like us to address, and it shoots straight into our hearts.  Instead of responding directly to these issues, we become 8 years old again, and say:

  •  “I know you are, but what am I!”
  • “I’m rubber, you’re glue, anything that comes at me, goes back to you and STICKS!”
  • “Shut up!  You are a poopy head!”

But of course, we are now adults, with many more sophisticated words to defend ourselves with.  So we show defensiveness saying things like this:

  • “Gee, Doris, it is curious you say that because I was just going to ask the same thing of  you…”
  • “I think you are being a tad unreasonable here. You know that’s impossible for me to do, given my current work schedule.”
  • “I’m afraid that wasn’t me who did/thought/said/felt that.  It was you.”

Or maybe we are harsher in our defensiveness with responses such as:

  • “Doris, I’m really tired of your constant complaining.  Maybe you should look in the mirror.”
  • “That’s a laugh.  YOU want ME to be more careful?  Careless is your middle NAME!”
  • “I can’t Believe you have the nerve to say that to me.  After all I’ve done for you…”

Counter-attacks, guilt trips, insults, and defensiveness in the form of “who me?s”‘…

What’s going on?


For many of us, something is, and we don’t want to look at it.  Our partner has touched a sore spot or has triggered us.  We haven’t slowed down to look at our reactions. We just react.

And no matter how much we want our partners to change the subject, excuse us from wrong-doing, or admit that they made a terrible, terrible mistake even suggesting that we were at fault, they don’t.  In fact, our defensiveness makes us more vulnerable than a bowl of honey in a beehive.

I would argue that the best way to intensify an argument or to get your partner fixated on a particular issue, is through defensiveness.

Defensiveness:  Accepting absolutely no responsibility for what you’ve said or done at all.  

We often try these ineffective defensive moves:

  • Counter-attack.
  • Trivialize their concerns.
  • Correct the way they said it.
  • Correct their reporting of the facts in the tiniest detail.  “I didn’t say you don’t do it.  I said you do not do it when I asked you….Why do you always twist my words?”

What can you do to counteract defensiveness?

One:  Stop.

Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Your feelings can give you a clue about why this is a tender issue for you.  Are you mad?  Sad? Confused? Disgusted? Outraged?

Two:  Consider.

Is there anything, any tiny little point you can agree with your partner on?  Something you can “give” on?  Anything?

Three:  Prepare Yourself and Them.

If this issue triggers you, let your partner know that, and preface what you are about to say:

“Look, George, this is a sensitive issue for me, so if I sound defensive, forgive me.  I’m trying to take in what you are saying and take it seriously.”


“Doris, hold on for a second.  I have to breathe. I want to listen to you, but I’m getting reactive, and I don’t want to be.

Four:  Respond.

“Okay, so George, here’s what I hear you’re upset about.  You want me to do/not do X.  Is that right?  I can see your point on X.  I get that.”


“So, X is what is upsetting you the most?  Doris, When I did that, I didn’t realize it, so I’m sorry.  I’m glad you told me.”

Fifth: Judo Move Harsh Start-ups.

Defensiveness is often triggered by Harsh Start-ups.  Harsh Start-ups are often a response to chronic defensiveness.  Either one of you can stop this destructive cycle, but you need a super “Judo Move” that Masters of Marriage use.

A common and clever, but ineffective response to Harsh Start-up:

Doris:  “Do you know what an idiot you are?”

George:  “No, but I’m sure you’re about to enlighten me!”


Try this advanced Judo move:

Doris:  “Do you know what an idiot you are?”

George:  “Ouch. You sound really angry at me. What are you upset about?” …(if you add the word “…now” as in “What are you upset about now (you constant complainer…)?”,  you’ve just lost your power move…)

A common and clever, but ineffective response to Harsh Start-up:

George:  “I can’t believe you forgot to do that.  You are so inconsiderate, it astounds me!”

Doris:  “I manage to expand your imagination daily!”

Try this advanced Judo move:

George:  “I can’t believe you forgot to do that.  You are so inconsiderate, it astounds me!”

Doris:  “I let you down.  I get that, George.  I’m sorry.”

Inviting Dialogue, Ignoring Criticism: A Masters of Marriage Response

What is so difficult, and what the Masters of Marriage seem to do so effortlessly, is to take the ‘ill will’ out of the criticism, and invite dialogue.  They seem to assume that any insults are just meant as emphasis, not as an attack.

So instead of defensiveness, they ignore the insults and go right to the heart of their partner’s feelings.

Slowing Down a Runaway Freight Train

They also realize that sometimes it takes a phrase or two for their partner to slow down and get back on board the Love Train.  Here’s an example:

George:  “I can’t believe you forgot to do that.  You are so inconsiderate, it astounds me!”

Doris:  “I let you down.  I get that. I’m sorry.”

George:  “Let me down?  That hardly covers what I feel.  You don’t THINK, Doris.  You don’t stop long enough to ask yourself  “What do I have to do?”

Doris:  Look, George, I know this gets to you, and I know you are really upset right now.  I’m not trying to minimize it.  I really upset you by forgetting this, and you are feeling as if you don’t count with me.  I hate it when I blow things like this, and leave you feeling that way.  I really do, honey.  I’m sorry.  And I mean it.” (Doris goes over and rubs his shoulder.)

George (softening):  I do feel like you don’t care about me sometimes, Doris.  That was really an important …(stops attacking and gets into the issue.)

When couples are learning to change patterns of defensiveness, they often need to learn not only how to stop their own defensive reactions, but how to respond to their partner’s Harsh Start-ups. And the “run away train” sometimes takes a step or two to slow down.

When Harsh Start-ups Turn Abusive

Doris kept with it for a second round of support and non-defensiveness, even when George continued his insults.  Two, and (less common), three tries are sometimes necessary to switch around a Harsh Start-up, but more than that gets abusive.  If George continues to insult, after Doris continues to “wave the white flag,” that’s a bad sign.

If he continues to insult, I teach couples to break off the discussion at that point.  More than likely, George (in this case) has become “flooded,” and unable to calm himself down.  It takes 20 minutes to calm down when someone is physiologically flooded.  You get nowhere with a partner that’s flooded.  It just escalates, sometimes to damaging levels.

Defensiveness:  A Common One of the Four Horsemen

Defensiveness is one of Four Horsemen that John Gottman has pointed out as problems in intimate relationships.  You can read more about defensiveness and the other three horsemen here.

Ready to Learn and Practice these skills in real time?

Schedule a session at Couples Therapy Inc.  It’s easy.  Drop us a line, or contact Daniel at 844-9-COUPLE x 2.

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About the Author Dr. K

Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice over the winter in Miami, Fl and the rest of the year on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and is a board-certified sex therapist.

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