Want a Truly Happy Marriage? Learn How to Stop Being So Defensive

"Marriage is fundamentally about connection. Defensiveness is one of the worst things that can interfere with having a healthy connection."

by John Mihaly
Originally Published: 
A married couple sitting at a table in their kitchen and eating
Claudia Burlotti/The Image Bank/Getty Images

We’ve all heard or said the classic statement, “Defense wins championships.” But being defensive however, wins nothing. There is no All-Pro Defensiveness team and anyone named to this inglorious, fictional squad, would well be on their way to having some serious issues with their relationship or marriage. We get it: Defensiveness is a gut reaction to feeling alone or unfairly attacked or criticized. However, having that defensiveness be a default sends a message to your partner that their feelings don’t matter. It’s hard to have a truly happy marriage when one partner is always on the defensive.

So many of us get defensive because it’s a learned behavior — and one that’s very hard to fight. That’s why we spoke to Anthony Chambers, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer of The Family Institute and Director of the Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies at Northwestern University. Fatherly asked him for some expert insight as to why many men go on the defensive (especially after a child is born) and for the most honest tips to taking criticism constructively, listening to your partner’s needs, and setting the best example for your children.

Is there a clinical definition for defensiveness?

The way to think about defensiveness is when you’re not being receptive to your partner’s feedback. It’s a combination of defending yourself and poking holes in the other person’s perspective so that when you’re trying to communicate, you’re constantly in this defensive pattern.

What’s the best way to recognize when you are being defensive?

When you’re in a relationship, and you’re communicating with your spouse (or partner), and it feels like a tennis match. You’re going back and forth and you’re not listening to what your partner is saying so that you can get your point, or that zinger, in as quickly as you can. That usually means you’re being defensive.

How should couples approach communication if their conversations are starting to feel like Wimbledon?

If you find yourself playing tennis, I always tell couples that’s the wrong game. You really want to be playing a catch because it’s a much slower game. You’re taking the ball and you’re trying to toss it so that your partner can easily receive it. They catch it. They look at the ball in their mitt and pick it up and toss it back to their partner. It’s a much more intentional form of communication in this game.

I love that. In certain conversations, constructive criticism can often come off as a negative critique.

You have to look at it almost from an evolutionary perspective of how our brains are wired to pay more attention to problems. Problems or critiques are very much like Velcro to the brain, meaning that they stick. Praise or positivity is much more like Teflon to the brain. When we hear criticism, it can carry a lot more negative emotion, which is why we’re much more sensitive to it. We’re required to pay attention to problems in order to survive and evolve. Now in the context of a partner relationship, that can be problematic. We really have to go above and beyond to pay attention to and recognize the positive things that are happening.

Do men tend to get more defensive than women?

Defensiveness is something that both genders engage in. I don’t think either gender is the sole culprit of being defensive. There may be different pathways for why a man may be defensive. For instance, boys that then grow into men, are more socialized to win or be competitive and they’re taught that it’s not really masculine to be wrong. That can be a contributing factor for defensiveness in males.

That connection makes a lot of sense. So, how does being overly defensive impact a marriage?

I would say that marriage is fundamentally about connection. Defensiveness is one of the worst things that can interfere with having a healthy connection. I really believe that the central task of marriage is the management of differences. Couples who tend to manage their differences well also tend to have a higher level of satisfaction in the relationship. If you approach your relationship by having a right/wrong or win/lose dialectic that’s really going to be a recipe for unhealthy conflict. Once you become defensive, you can feel that you can’t communicate or talk to your spouse. You become more distant or resentful. When that happens, it can signal the beginning of the end.

How about when children come into the picture?

It’s important for men who are new fathers to expect that children will now be at the top of their priority list during that transition to parenthood. That’s not always easy. There’s less time, money, and sleep when children arrive. It’s not uncommon for men to feel that their spouse is telling them that what they’re doing is wrong or that they’re not doing enough to help out, which goes back to the literature that is very well documented around gender roles becoming much more traditional when you have a child. It’s not very equitable, and that can be very difficult. Within that context, men can become more defensive, and sometimes they get tired of feeling criticized constantly or feel that they’re not doing anything right or that they’re not being appreciated.

Speaking about those gender roles, specifically when it comes that imbalance in labor, how can we limit the defensiveness on dad’s end while allowing mom to be heard?

One of the best things for couples to be able to do, especially during that transition into parenthood, is you need to be able to be proactive and have conversations. List out the different chores that need to get done and talk about how that labor can be divided. It’s important for both the father and the mother to be really mindful of that fact that things might not be identical, 50/50 down the middle. Sameness is not the same as fairness.

What do you mean when you say that “Sameness is not the same as fairness?”

What’s really important is being able to have your expectations met. Unmet expectations are the biggest risk factor for why couples really struggle during that transition into parenthood. If you have in your head that your spouse is supposed to do three things, but your partner only does one or two of them, then you’re going to be disappointed. But if there are ten things that need to get done and you say, “Just do those three,” and those three are done then you’re going to feel good even though there are seven other things that need to be done. It’s all about making sure that the couple is on the same page about having shared expectations.

So what are some helpful ways to realize when one is being defensive?

Pay attention to your emotional state throughout the day. If you were to think about how stressed you are on a scale of one to ten, give yourself a number. If you’re frustrated, tense, or upset, and your number is in the six range on that scale then it’s time to realize that you need to do something proactive to get that number down. You need to engage in proactive behaviors to get to that better place. If you’re tired, take a nap. If you’re hungry, get something to eat. Do some deep breathing, go out for a run, workout, whatever you can do to get that stress out, so you’re showing up to your family the best version of yourself. When you’re taking a timeout, remember you need to let your partner know that what you’re talking about is important and that we’ll come back to it. Don’t just leave!

What’s a suitable method for seeing constructive criticism as not just critical?

If you have a mindset that’s fixed, that you think you know everything you need to know, you’re going to hear any kind of feedback as a criticism. If you adopt a growth mindset and embrace error-driven learning, you’ll see mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow. You can’t get better if you’re not open to learning from your mistakes and using feedback from others as an opportunity to do better. Again, it’s about not approaching conversations as right/wrong or win/lose. That approach always carries the risk of negatively impacting the relationship. There’s a very low correlation between being right and being happy.

Is there anything else one can do to be a positive partner when it comes to communication and criticism?

Start with the premise or the idea that there is some validity to what is being said to you. If you start by questioning the validity of your partner, then you’re going to get conflict and negative interaction. Even if you don’t initially understand their feedback or you’re having a hard time seeing what your partner is seeing, approach your partner through the lens of curiosity. See this as an opportunity to become a better version of yourself and to make sure that you’re there for your partner in the ways that they need you to be there for them.

Finally, how does this type of curiosity relate to child rearing? If your kids see their parents acting this way to each other, will they be more likely to model their behavior that way?

Every single study shows that marital conflict is a predictor for adverse outcomes for kids into adolescents into adulthood, whether it’s teenage drinking or pregnancy, academic achievement, depression, or anxiety. Thing single best thing that parents can do for their children is to raise them in the context of a happy, healthy marriage.

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