"Defenses against defensiveness" | Cultivating a listening heart

By Heidi Naylor

John Gottman is a household name among therapists. If you’ve gone through pre-marital or marital counseling at some point in your life, it’s likely you’ve heard his name mentioned one or fifty times. You’d be hard-pressed to find a therapist that wouldn’t ask for his autograph if they ran into him at the grocery store; his contributions to the field are that profound.

Gottman is best known for his relationship research stemming from the “love lab,” which is an apartment laboratory he created at the University of Washington. Back in 1990, Gottman invited 130 newlywed couples to spend a day at the “love lab,” where they did ordinary, daily activities together, such as cooking and hanging out. During their stay, couples were hooked up to heart rate monitors and video recorded for observation. Gottman and his colleagues poured over the collected data intensely, looking at how people were able to resolve conflict; whether (and how) they responded to each other’s statements throughout the day, whether their fight-or-flight systems were aroused at any point, their tone of voice, etc. The results of this elaborate study yielded characteristics of what John Gottman now refers to as the masters and disasters of relationships.

Amid the myriad of theory that ensued, Gottman located “Four Horsemen” that contribute to the decline of a relationship: (1) Defensiveness, (2) Contempt, (3) Criticism and (4) Stonewalling. These Four Horsemen erode trust and safety—fundamental components of any relationship. And though all four are deadly to relationships, defensiveness is a particularly sneaky poison.

Defensiveness manifests in subtle ways, and is often disguised as an explanation of good intentions or reasons why the offended party shouldn’t feel hurt or angry. It is also revealed in cases where the instinctive reaction, upon hearing your partner's concerns, is to share a laundry list of ways you've been hurt. In it’s not so subtle form, defensiveness turns into blatant attacking or blame-shifting. In any circumstance, however, it always leads to deflection of the actual issue. It’s like throwing dust up in the air to confuse the topic and get the spotlight off us.

Usually, defensiveness is a result of feeling threatened in some way. When we feel threatened, our instinct is to self-protect. Our fight-or-flight response may kick in and the desire for self- protection skyrockets. Hyper-vigilantly, we scan our brains for some kind of roadblock that will throw that person off the trail. Just imagine years upon years of this. Would any issue be effectively dealt with? Could two people continue to grow close in such an environment?

It’s really sad to me how much is lost in defensiveness. Not only is trust jeopardized, but couples are also losing vital information they need in order to improve their relationships and develop personal character. When I reflect on the times I’ve been able to hear about pain I unintentionally caused, or listen to concerns from people I love (and who I trust love me) it’s usually information I really needed to pay attention; for my good, as well as theirs. And, when I allow myself to take in and digest difficult truth spoken honestly—and hopefully with grace—it can have some really beautiful, transformational results. But, first, I have to listen.

If we were limited to the animal brain and were prisoners of reaction, I’d say our odds of breaking the defensiveness cycle were pretty low. But, I believe there are ways to recognize and overcome this reaction and choose a better way. John Gottman identified the antidote to the poison of defensiveness as taking responsibility. It's such a simple concept that's not simple at all in practice. Our desires to defend often run deep, made up of so much of our personal histories and self-image. Yet, I believe we can learn and foster defenses against defensiveness that help us take responsibility: frameworks from which a climate of communication and connection can grow. Three such frameworks include:


Below the surface of a person who is defensive is often an inability to accept wrongdoing. Whether that’s the result of inaccurate self-assessment (i.e. falsely viewing ones self as perfect, near-perfect, or incapable of hurting another), or simply not wanting to take responsibility for actions, humility is a powerful remedy. To cultivate humility is to come to a place of acceptance with our “humanness,” acknowledging that we all make mistakes, and that regardless of whether or not we like what we did or said, we need to take responsibility. Humility allows us to lay down the case we’d like to make to prove we’re blameless, and instead to listen to how we’ve hurt another. We are freed up to hear the person in front of us, without trying to maintain our façade of being perfect—or right. We can say, “yes, I did that, and I’m sorry.”


Another powerful remedy for defensiveness is allowing ones self to feel what someone else is feeling. In defense-mode, we’re only thinking about ourselves. When our errors, offenses, or wrongdoings are placed before our eyes, it’s uncomfortable: we squirm and do anything we can to get out of feeling that way. Conversely, empathy allows us to step outside our own feelings of discomfort and imagine someone else’s perspective. When we open our hearts up to another’s pain, we’re more likely to respond in ways that are validating, instead of brushing off their concerns or making excuses. Empathy enables us to see and understand important factors we otherwise would miss and it strengthens our will and ability to restore the relationship. 


This third remedy is a two-person effort. Creating an emotional climate where you and your partner feel like you have each other’s backs and can often assume the best about each other is an important framework for navigating challenging conversations. When we feel loved by someone else, we are less likely to feel attacked when they express their displeasure, frustration, or pain. It’s a daily task, working to create such a safe environment, but when a person feels secure in another’s love and affection, conflict feels less like criticism—it may even feel less like conflict. Additionally, when the shared goal of the relationship is an atmosphere of love, debilitating fears of rejection that cause us to make excuses are less likely to mount, and positive growth can occur.

“You can’t be lazy and have a garden,” my professor once said, “You can’t be lazy and have good relationships.” As I look over this list, I’m remembering those words. Humility, empathy and love are not things we suddenly “will” into existence. They take work, like a garden. They come through prayer, deep reflection, and learning. They come from falling and standing back up, and trying again. They are choices we make as an act of the will each day: messy and beautiful endeavors.