My Partner Is Overly Defensive. How Can I Lower His Guard?

I am 25 and in a relationship with a man who is 12 years my senior. We see eye to eye on a lot of important goals, values, and interests, and share a very loving, affectionate, understanding relationship. However, there is one difference in personalities that seems to make little arguments far worse than they need to be. My partner has been married twice before (first to his high school sweetheart, and then to a woman he dated for six years), and in both marriages his partner turned out to be controlling, unaffectionate, and unaccepting of his values and beliefs. Since then, he has nursed a lot of insecurity, shame, and regret, and now carries a philosophy of "I am going to be myself no matter what, and I will change for no one." Though I applaud him for being true to himself, I have noticed that even when I bring up the small concerns (e.g., looking at other women too much, forgetting to unload the dishwasher, not initiating sex as often as I would like), he says that he feels attacked, gets defensive, tries to use humor to detract from the issue, and (at its worst) stonewalls me. I have tried softening my start-up, mentioning more positives than negatives in an argument, and even telling him directly that if he doesn't want to apologize for his behavior it would make me feel more connected if he at least apologizes for hurting my feelings. Alas, I have only made marginal headway, and I am starting to get frustrated. Any suggestions? —Out of Ideas
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Dear Out of Ideas,

Thanks for your question. I can imagine your chagrin at your husband shifting from what sounds like frequent acquiescence to “no more Mr. Doormat.” The problem, however, is that in his new “take no prisoners” approach he has become rigid and defensive. At least in some areas; you say he is loving and affectionate, though the defensiveness sounds anything but. Is there a particular topic that seems to trigger his hard-line stands?

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the impressive work of John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman, but they list defensiveness and stonewalling as two of the “Four (marital) Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” (Contempt and criticism are the others.) Because compromise and flexibility are key to an evolving relationship, I can understand your frustration and hurt feelings. Good you’re addressing it, otherwise resentment and withdrawal may ensue. It sounds like you are starting to feel what he felt in his previous marriages, except in this new casting you are expected to say “OK” to everything, and clearly that is not going to work.

I guess one question I would have is, does he really understand how his new attitude is hurting you? I suppose from a psychodynamic point of view one might say he is defending against feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem, but he is shifting all of the focus on the outside instead of processing the hurt feelings that may still remain from his previous marriage. You say he is dealing with insecurity, shame, and regret from his previous marriage, all painful, yes—but something to share with you in a tender way, or with a therapist to process and move beyond these internal reactions. (I’m not sure why I’m saying this, but intuitively I sense it might be good for him to find a male therapist to discuss this with, or even a men’s therapy group to find his own voice in all this, without having to go to extremes.)

In any event, it is never a good idea to meet rigidity with rigidity, at least when it comes to relationships (we can see how great it works in the nation’s capital, too). Lasting intimacy rests on trust, and trust requires vulnerability, acknowledgment, mutuality, and an atmosphere of empathy. Your husband seems empathically disconnected from his behavior, which forces you to pull back to protect yourself. I suggest you sit down and tell him how you feel when he acts in such a defensive manner. Try to focus on your own feelings, as opposed to “you’re being defensive,” etc. I find it more effective to say “it really hurts and feels like you don’t care when you …” The hope is that he will listen with his heart and understand that he is harming his beloved with this new stance (the flip side of total acquiescence), and will be motivated to change. Finally, if nothing else works, some marriage counseling might help you talk to each other in a way that breeds closeness rather than hurt. Thanks again for writing.

Respectfully,
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Carla

    Carla

    November 22nd, 2013 at 12:45 PM

    Maybe he is putting up these defenses because it is his way of protecting against being hurt again?

  • Kat

    Kat

    June 28th, 2016 at 1:26 PM

    So what? That’s not his new partner’s job to deal with.

  • Kirsten

    Kirsten

    June 30th, 2016 at 9:49 AM

    Listen to Kat! I used to excuse poor behaviors on beh,after of my partner. It was easier to do that than believe someone who sapossed to respect my feelings actually didnt. It’s similar to diaagnosing someone with a personality disorder than to accept a loved one may just have bad behaviors we shouldn’t accept.

  • mark k

    mark k

    November 23rd, 2013 at 5:08 AM

    I think that a lot of men naturally get defensive when they feel like they are being attacked but this really sounds like it could go a little deeper than that. He has a history of relationships not ending great so in some ways perhaps he is trying to guard against that happening again. What concerns me though is that he doesn’t seem to realize how this is affecting you and I think that that is a bad thing, espevcially if you can’t tell him in a way that doesn’t get him to go on further attack. Maybe the two of you need to go aomewhere together with an unbiased person mediating so that you can both talk through your feelings and neither one has to feel like they have to get defensive? If he is willing to do that, that is.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    November 23rd, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    Great comments Mark. Appreciate your astute remarks!

  • Kat

    Kat

    June 28th, 2016 at 1:28 PM

    I’m sick of the “he doesn’t realize…” excuse. He knows. He just doesn’t care. Time to move on. Trust me, I’ve been dealing with this attitude for years. It doesn’t change, but you will… you will become unemotional and immune to all hurt. It sounds nice, but with it also comes not being able to feel love.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    November 23rd, 2013 at 11:55 AM

    Thanks to both of you for reading. :)

  • Jake

    Jake

    November 25th, 2013 at 5:00 AM

    How do you really know how those other two relationships ended? You are only getting the info from him, but maybe they ended because of the exact same reasons that you are writing here. I know that you want to believe your guy, but do you think that you are getting the whole truth and dsiclosure or is he just saying all of that to make himself look a little better?

  • Kat

    Kat

    June 28th, 2016 at 1:29 PM

    ^Truth!

  • Kelsey

    Kelsey

    November 26th, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    Is it too much just to tell him that you are not comfortable with his actions? I think that he would stand up and tell you the same thing, so why don’t you turn that around and do the same to him?

  • melanie d

    melanie d

    December 6th, 2013 at 4:55 AM

    hmmm maybe he has something to hide and anytime that you get kind of close to that he gets all defennsive to keep you from pursuin it any further

  • Out of Ideas

    Out of Ideas

    December 6th, 2013 at 10:21 AM

    I appreciate your response, Darren, thank you. You bring up some really great points, and I appreciate your input. I think it’s particularly helpful to hear from a man, particularly one with as much experience working with men and male-specific issues as you have. I will try to absorb this advice into my own approach moving forward with my relationship.

    In response to everyone else, you all seem to agree that maybe he’s protecting himself against being hurt, and I agree with that. It pains me to know that he has not been appreciated for the good person that he is, and that’s why i’m extra sensitive to his feelings. I also think that it’s rare to find someone who truly is himself in every situation, so I don’t want to clip his wings, when i’m proud of the progress he’s made in asserting himself and finding his identity. I’m just worried that his belief that “if you have to change too much, then it’s not a good fitting relationship” means that he feels that he can do better with someone else who follows a more similar lifestyle, and it hurts me to think that. I’m trying to strike the balance between healthy compromise and unhealthy sacrifice, and I think both of our emotional scars blur the lines a bit. I will try to be more supportive for him and assertive for myself.

    However, I disagree with the idea that two marriages is some scarlet letter announcement of personal failures, since he has been married for most of his life, and I know many people who have dated throughout their lives and had many more break-ups, yet no one considers those personal failures. I have met both of his exes, actually, as the first is the mother of his children and remains a part of our lives; the second I have had the chance to meet on a few occasions, my boyfriend has shared several text conversations they have had during their separation, and I have heard accounts from his friends about their relationship. I have no reason to not believe him or trust him completely.

  • cam

    cam

    March 4th, 2014 at 1:05 PM

    Ask him why he is so defensive and be nice about it talk to him in a calm voice deffencive people will not talk to people who are aggressive I speak from Experience I am very deffencive because of the way my family has treated me for 28 years

  • Nick

    Nick

    November 2nd, 2014 at 2:59 PM

    When someone in your past hurts you it can really hurt in the future. People can tell you depression this and that, and it may have everything to do with that. Just becuse you have the love of your life doesnt mean little things wont trigger deep deep anger. My family helicoptered me growing up and always said no or never let me grow. Just the fact of always being told no hurt, and i never wanted to explore or do anything. Resentment built up seeing my friends have lives. I grew up passive, no boundries, never happy with my accomplishments, lashing out at any negative thing just wanting to make my family happy, my boss, and my ex…but it was never good enough. So if he lashes out all he wants is your acceptance and love. I never wanted to fight becuse I know it would trigger that now whats wrong. I understand people have needs but you cant take back the years of harm. You have to decide if you love him and are willing to gently let him know whats wrong without hurting him or triggering an idea. I know like him we’ll have to get over it, but when you’ve been hurt your confidence is low no matter how much youve done in your life. Sadly I had an ex who was very controlling and it wasnt fun. Sadly I suffered from sexual anxiety and shame. Nothings helped and only more negative experiences have made the defensiveness worse. Love him or hate him but you must choose. It’s better to leave than hurt him more. Sadly no one knows how to communicate. Its something that really needs to be taught in schools becuse no one knows how to do it and thats why so many people fight, cant compromise, and stuff ends.

  • tisha

    tisha

    February 3rd, 2015 at 5:22 PM

    i have a pretty similar situation. weve talked about the causes n stuff but still after saying to me he feels like he could talk to me more because of how understanding i am, it still automatiically happens and i get just as hurt each time and only when its obvious he’ll finally notice my side. ive been hurt a lot too in the past mentally and physically n for a while, but i know he wouldnt ever hit me for voicing an opinion like what happened with fosterhome and an ex of 3 yrs. so i tell him everything. this makes it hurt even more that he’d tell me im different n easy to talk to. not (overly psycho), yet still treat me like other people. we both went thru a lot n besides this have the best times but i keep trying cause of how much i love him n i feel like its for nothing. it scares me cause of how i feel n cause i know he cares about me. it realy seems so but doesnt seem to change this..

  • Betsy

    Betsy

    May 18th, 2015 at 8:20 AM

    story of my life there are no therapists in my town …..GO FIGURE ____I live in Ozark alabama…im not ritch and trying to find someone to help me from thinking
    im crazy,,,im so defencive that iv goten older 48 yrs old ,bad child hood ..cancer ,addiction still im running out of time ,,,i want to be loved ,liked, HAPPY ><HAPPY …THANKS FOR LISTENING IF YOU EVEN ARE ????Betsy

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    May 18th, 2015 at 10:09 AM

    Hi Betsy. Yes we are listening. I wonder if you could find a therapist within your state who could do therapy via phone or Skype. In California phone or Skype therapy is permitted within the state but not across state lines. You might want to check your state laws on this as it might be a possibility for you. Thanks for your feedback!

  • Tanya

    Tanya

    September 13th, 2015 at 11:31 PM

    I used to live in Enterprise Alabama and there was a good therapist there. Good luck.

  • Heather

    Heather

    October 9th, 2015 at 1:48 PM

    My partner is also very defensive. To the point it is difficult to resolve anything. One thing I have found helps when he becomes defensive, is to use the statement- ” I love you and I really want to work through this issue together. I am sorry if you feel attacked or blamed. That is not my intent. I only want to work through this together towards a solution that works for us both.”….Stating the “work through this together” seems to help him understand that I am wanting to work on things not just blame.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    October 9th, 2015 at 4:02 PM

    Thanks Heather great suggestion!

  • Kim

    Kim

    October 12th, 2015 at 5:32 AM

    I have been in a relationship for two years after a 28 year marriage. When coming into this relationship I was guarded and shit down. He continue to go the extra mile and became my bestfriend. In the second year of our relationship my father , my book of wisdom , my advisor and the one man in my life that excepted me unconditionally, became Terminally ill with cancer. I was blessed to have my partner by my side. My 4 sister and I stayed with my parents ( in another state) for three months and took care of them and we where blessed to be there for his last breath. This has put me in a downward spiral and I could not hold a job for about a year . I finally got it together and I am working and we are working on our goals together. It has been 8 months since he has passed and my mother is being tested for a lump on her thyroid . I began to cry and feelling began to combine together . He Asks me what’s wrong and I tell him and his response is ” just get some rest” and Begins playing his game. After stewing over this and deciding my approach knowing how defensive he is . I told I didn’t want to fight but I needed to express what I needed from him. I told him I needed a hug or a kind supportive word and that his actions hurt me. He began to tell me I was just pointing out what he does wrong and instead I should of just cuddled up to him and not point out what he did wrong. After reassuring him that wasn’t my goal , that he is so many things to me including my ” go to” and there was no need to be secs doc I am not trying to point out any negative I just want to communicate what I need from you emotionally. Needless to say he told me he was in a lose lose , if he said nothing at all he was wrong and when he sis this time it wasn’t enough! Soooo frustrated and hurt I apologized for making him feel that way and he said ” and I apologize for not being what you need ” and rolled over to sleep. These reactions of defensiveness come quite often in anything i point out, he will be mad at me for them and I get no where fast. I love this man and clearly the 2 marriages He’s had has ended for similar reasons . Where did my best friend go?? I love him dearly please help!

  • Kim

    Kim

    February 17th, 2016 at 10:33 PM

    HI Kim

    I have the same problem at the moment. My boyfriend of 4yrs hates confrontation, I try and change my approach when I want to discuss certain things with him, but it always ends up with him raising his voice, pointing fingers at me and running me down telling me how rude I am etc(and he will bring in other people, like even your daughter and your mother says you are rude). Like everyone I am sure, I get irritable and voice my irritation sometimes with things in general, but I am very far from being a rude person, I am emotional, a home maker I care for people A LOT! He twists everything I say when I want to discuss some issues. Apparently I AM THE PROBLEM in our relationship. He says he needs to be complimented, he thrives on compliments, I need to respect him as I don’t. I am so confused, Due to all this I have withdrawn from him and don’t talk when we are in company cos he overrides me infront of everyone. I care for him a lot, but he is killing me. I sometimes feel worthless when with him, and wait for him to say something that hurts……………..I don’t want to live like this anymore, I want some solutions to move forward. He really is a wonderful guy, he has the most wonderful qualities, WE have a lot that we have in common, butI don’t know what I have done to deserve him treating me that way he does, and I certainly cant love him when he treats me the way he does. Funny when I tell him I don’t like how he talks to me he twists it and sayd I don’t like the way you treat me??????????? Its always TIT for TAT! HELP!???

  • Kimberly S.

    Kimberly S.

    March 29th, 2016 at 11:16 AM

    Dear Kim, (Re Feb. 17, 2016)
    I just your your post and have a sitaution similar to yours. I am preparing to move forward without him. I cannot tolerate his behaviors, stonewalling and contemp, not acknowledging how his defensiveness is hurtful, anylonger. My BF of 5 years is showing the same behaviors: extreme defensiveness, deflecting and blaming me for his defensive rages ( takes the focus of him so he can avoid taking resposibility for his part), and now shaming and minimizing me, faulting me, and recently screaming I brought this ( bad, minimizing, rage and defensiveness) on mysefl. I have become withdrawn and am planning an now planning my exit strategy. In spite of his other qualities, when the rubber meets the road, he acts sophomoric and blames me for his poorchoices, lack of motivation, his prolonged unemployment and current bankruot status (he quit his job 6 years ago and has spent all his retirement to live). Hes bought me nothing and I have not spent his money whatsoever. I cannot sacrifice my self worth anymore, it’s going to be hard enough to rebuild what’s left. He has an unacceptable level of anger and defenses I’ve behaviors and refuses to acknowledge it. His family sees him as a golden boy, neither if his parents challenged or gave him consequences his poor behavior of angry outburst or tantrums, so I’ve been told. My BF is 46 years old. I’ve detemined he is showing me who he is and if i dont listen, it’s ultimately my responsibility, and choice, for staying with a man, waiting for him to change, while spe di g mu time alone on line and i therapy to save myself. While I seek answers for my extremely damaged, low self esteem from his hurtful words, I realize this is a one way street. In addition, he is an alchoholic, and uses marijuana to mask his anxiety for veing unemployed and now broke. He is an unmotivated individual that refuses to fi d help for himself or take i initiative to improve his life. I writing to tell yiu, comp,aiming about it is one thing g, doing so etching about it is another. If I do nothing but complain about him and my circumstance, I’m avoiding taking resposibility for my own life. The first time we’re a victim, the rest of the time we’re a volunteer.

  • Victoria

    Victoria

    April 18th, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    Since he feels so guarded and closed he is suspicious of true communication and incapable of being vulnerable. Couples counseling is the last thing he would agree to. He would rather have the relationship fall apart.

  • Kat

    Kat

    June 28th, 2016 at 1:36 PM

    Even though this is an old post, it still shows up in search results so I’ll add a comment that I think is necessary.
    A man who needs to be babied is not a man. If you want to mother somebody, then keep this type of person, but expect to deal with a giant baby for the rest of your life. However, if you want a mutually respectful relationship in which both partners put in equal effort and feel equally loved and respected, then ditch this and go find something better. My experience: over 7 years dealing with a personality like this, even with therapy.

  • Kitsten

    Kitsten

    June 29th, 2016 at 11:08 AM

    Kay:
    THANK YOU. I’ve been following this older thread and just read your post. You’ve no idea howuchbtjis resonates with me. I can’t take my 46 yO emotionally-abusive, immature , highly -defensive responses to any discussion I initiate any longer. It’s simply feels hopeless. He refuses to try at all ( used to) and no longer apologizes for crossing the line into a full-insult, hitting below the belt rage , personal attack on me rage. I once asked him: would you talk this way to me I front of your parents or friends? He was stunned silent. We both knew the answer and I knew he knew the difference. He chooses his responses and he chooses childish defensive fits, never acknowledging me in the process. As a result, I have created emotional and physical distance and get agitated by his mere presence. I have just concluded he is unwilling to try and will not: ” what resists persists” and “One cannot change what they won’t acknowledge”. He is always stellar in his behavior and response to mearound family and friends but a different man shows up in private. I infetstand this shows he knows the difference and doesn’t care . I deserve better than this bull!??$”. Six years is enough of his childish behaviors and of my lack of sf respect in tolerating it. I’m getting out and getting myself back.

  • Pixi

    Pixi

    July 24th, 2016 at 1:29 PM

    Kirsten I just re read your story and good on you. I hope you are doing ok. I think it comes down to ; it does not matter when people are to old or rigid to change thier abusive behaviours, why they are that way. It is still not ok to live that way if it hurts you. They are adults who need to sort thier own stuff out and if they can’t , why enable them to continue by being there to have it directed at you? I can have compassion for the child inside him who couldn’t mature, but don’t want to live with the adult that replaced that child. I forgive but learn my lesson and we need to make our and our kids lives as full of light and love as we can while we have the chance. I have no room for toxic under my own roof! It poisons us. Negative peptides and to much cortisol that stress produces makes people sick… We don’t need that. You take care Kirsten and keep your head up… Kia kaha ( means strength to you) x

  • Pixi

    Pixi

    July 23rd, 2016 at 3:31 PM

    I really resonate with the comments by Kat and Kirsten about big immature babies, and having to distance oneself. I cannot , no matter how I approach anything, talk with my man without him being so defensive he gets prickly , covers his face and looks away ( or walks away) and will not communicate. If he does respond it is as if being attacked and as if I am the enemy. I am sick of being shut out. I have reacted badly ( crying and shouting or begging him to listen and not walk away) enough times for him to now use this as an excuse to avoid sharing any talk about how he or I feels about anything that is not happiness,within a loving context . If we have any conflict at all he turns off love and caring like a switch… It is like a different guy. I have only just realised truly that if we are in conflict he cannot feel love toward me. He lacks empathy And cannot seem to be close without feeling threatened . Very very difficult. I get threats of him leaving almost every time we argue, and am begining to distance myself emotionally to not feel the hurt so much because it does hurt very badly. I am now realising it is not really about me and will begin building myself up to leave eventually when I have my strength back . Good luck and kind wishes to you all out there dealing with this form of emotional abuse, because no matter why they are like that, that’s what it is. Be strong and don’t let it kill your spirit

  • Kirsten

    Kirsten

    July 23rd, 2016 at 10:34 PM

    Dear Pixi, I just read your message and I’m sorry for your suffering. You are a very self aware, compassionate person and I understand what your going through. Please know, this is actually growth . It takes courage to make a change of direction iafter being abused emotionally by contempt. It truly hurts and It’s an invisible pain that can cause you to doubt yourself. Don’t. TKe care of yourself and look at his distancing himself as freedom for you! You now have the space to you need to heal and elevate yourself and leave your abuser in the dust. Distance offers perspective. Do what you need to do to become healthy again. You can’t be available to find someone who will appreciate you by hanging onto a man who is underserving. I understand it’s easier because it’s familiar and change can be very uncomfortable. It will be hard, but there’s a certain dignity in being alone to allow yourself to griev, reflect and find strength and new standards that will attract a healthy partner. All the best, I know you’re going to fine. You’ll be amazed how different your life will be for the better.

  • Pixi

    Pixi

    July 24th, 2016 at 1:13 PM

    Kirsten, thank you for your kind words. Yes I agree and know what you are saying. It’s funny how I have finally come to this stage in reflection and begin to think I will distance and that is exactly when my fiancé goes all nice and tries to Hoover me back into being close again. Such a text book cycle really ( if a slow one). He seems to play that wierd push me pull you game ( wants me if he thinks I’m showing signs of losing interest). I think he is a covert Narcississt who needs supply. He seems pretty passive aggressive and totally lacks insight into his own behaviour, does not know his feelings and says to often he has none, pretends he doesn’t ‘get’ any talk about connection etc. It’s worn a bit thin!!! However I have a child ( not his) and am going to need that time and space ( like you said) to build a plan and do this in a sensible thought out manner so I don’t lose my home etc. I used to work in the area of family violence so I’m pretty confident really about where my boundaries should be and have lots of skills and ability to earn etc so that’s not worry . Also have lived alone and liked it for over 5 years as a single parent ( before we met) so I’m happy to live alone with my child again if I need to. I just wish it were not this way, but the denial phase is over! Ha ha. I really appreciate your answering my comment. Thank you, love and light :)

  • Pixi

    Pixi

    July 24th, 2016 at 1:18 PM

    Ps the feeling of perspective and freedom distancing is begining to give me is just how you describe it. Funny how we can become so dulled by people like that and when we beging to regain our true self it’s like the colour seeping back into us :) .

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