Dr. A. Lynn Scoresby
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What to Do With A Defensive Spouse?

August 31st, 2009 by Lynn

Some people are born more reactive to the environment than others. And some individuals grow up around excessive criticism and other forms of mistreatment which creates hurt and frustration. If both of these happen to the same individual then the result often is a very defensive person. More specifically it is a defensive, self protective brain which minimizes incoming information in order to protect oneself from potential hurt.

Most of us have heard the word “defensive,” but to ensure I am communicating I will describe the characteristics of defensiveness. (1) Difficulty accepting they are loved and often reject other people’s attempts to love them. (2) Fear of being controlled so they control others often by giving ultimatums or using absolutes such as “never,” or “always.” (3) Emotional aloofness and distance sometimes being close to their partners but withdrawing from them for even small offenses. (4) Wordy explanations for and descriptions of their own behavior, which is usually described as a reaction to or a victim of what someone else does, rather than an acceptance of responsibility for how they act (5) Contradictory behavior where what is said often is not matched by how they act, (6) A defensive person often forms a perception of another person, concludes this is what the other person thinks or feels, and then condemns them for it. (7) A defensive person seeks to get his way by swearing or demanding or arguing until the other person gives in.

As you might imagine dealing with such a person is difficult but it is possible to help them. These people often have tender feelings, care a great deal, and frequently do not know the consequences for their actions. So, the first step is to be willing to help rather than react negatively to this behavior by expressing anger and frustration. Getting angry at a defensive person obviously will justify to him or her that they are not cared for and their defenses are necessary.

The nature of the help typically requires that we be calm, warm, and persistent. But usually to be effective this will need to be accompanied by helping this person become acquainted with his or her feelings, his or her thoughts, and questions which help them make self descriptions (non judgmental) of themselves. During this process this person may falsely accuse, lash out, get angry and withdraw, and blame. These have to be overlooked while the focus is kept on “Let’s keep talking,” “empathy,” and “I can see your point of view.” Then it is often possible to invite this person to “understand, without agreeing,” with what you are saying. Inviting a defensive person to understand is an important step because it helps them avoid getting aroused. Once this happens they can usually be helped to listen better and discern between simple information and what might actually hurt them. When this happens it is then possible for a defensive person to understand that he or she is defensive and this sense of responsibility often leads to more balanced and humane communication. It takes time, but is usually worth it if a defensive person is able to make progress.

Posted in Marriage, Uncategorized


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