Most conversations begin with the intent of progress. Whether the small (what do you want for dinner?) or the more complex (why are the kids always late for bounce class?), the goal is to figure out an an issue and continue onwards towards a resolution. Some issues, of course, take longer to resolve than others. But when progress or promise of resolution is rarely reached, it can be incredibly disheartening.
Now, no one likes to have unpleasant conversations, confront difficult topics, or have full-on arguments. But, in any relationship, they are going to come up and must be addressed. If one or both partners regularly tends to redirect the conversation or lash out when a conversation becomes too difficult, progress is halted and, often, feelings are hurt.
Deflection can take a number of different forms, ranging from making a joke during a tense conversation, to trying to downplay a person’s feelings in an effort to diffuse tension, to redirecting blame to the other person. Frequent deflection can start to damage the relationship as it makes communication difficult, harms intimacy, and leads to resentment.
“Deflection in relationships often occurs when a person cannot hold themselves accountable for their actions,” says Dr. Lisa Kruger, a licensed professional counselor and the founder of Stepping Stone Psychotherapy. “By shifting blame onto the other person, they are in a way creating a false reality in order to defend themselves from feeling the guilt of their own actions.”
There can be a lot of reasons why someone deflects difficult topics in a relationship. They could be afraid of conflict or resort to defensive behavior as a way of protecting themselves. They could also be suffering from low self-esteem and not want to hear criticism or negative feedback. In many cases, this is a learned behavior that has likely been modeled for the deflector by parents or early caregivers.
“This can create a deep denial of insecurities that the person then brings into their relationship, which is what they are defending against through deflection,” says Kruger. “While this behavior may be clear to others, the person deflecting may not even be aware that they are perpetuating this into their own relationships.”
If you’re dealing with deflection in your relationship relationship, both parties can do some work to help manage the problem. Here’s some advice to remember.
1. Call Out The Behavior
If a person feels as though they’re being deflected and that their feelings aren’t being properly recognized, it’s important to speak up and let the other person know what is happening. “They may not be aware they are doing it,” Kruger says. “It can be helpful to let them know how their behavior is affecting you and the relationship.”
2. Show Compassion
It can be a challenge for the person whose thoughts and conversations are being deflected to be supportive and sympathetic of the deflector. However, showing empathy and support to the other person can help to ease tension and make the deflector feel more open to having those tough conversations.
“For people who are unaware they are deflecting, it can be difficult for the receiving person to have empathy towards them,” Kruger says. “However, if it is the desire to maintain the relationship, a willingness to work together to create healthier communication is imperative.”
3. Learn Your Triggers
If you’re someone who deflects, it’s important to learn what it is that leads you to do so. What makes you uncomfortable? Is it admitting when you’re wrong? Facing difficult-to-process feelings? Talking about work or finances? Learning what can set you off and dealing with those issues can make you better at communicating when those topics come up.
“Ask your partner if they notice whether there are times that you deflect and avoid taking responsibility,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Tracy Dalgleish. “Only ask if you are willing to hear the answer and be curious about what your partner has to say. This is a chance to really listen and learn from them to help deepen your connection.”
4. Know When a Deflection Is Coming
One of the best ways for a deflector to prevent the behavior is to identify when the urge to deflect is rising. This is, of course, easier said than done. But it’s important to try.
“Practice getting present,” says Dalgleish. “Squeeze and release your hands, push your feet into the ground, or notice things in your environment with your senses. This allows you to slow down before reacting with a deflection.”
Another helpful tactic is to mindfully pause a conversation when you sense the urge to deflect is rising. Simply tell your partner that you need a break and promise to resume the conversation in ten or 15 minutes. Use that time to unwind and reset.
Dalgleish also suggests the simple act of reminding yourself to show up for your relationship. “We we know that when we are triggered, we are more likely to be reactive, and thereby deflective,” she says. “Ask yourself if how you are about to respond is in line with your values of this relationship or how you want to show up.”
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Seek Help
Sometimes in a relationship, two people aren’t enough to solve the problems that exist between them. It can be a good idea in those cases to look to therapy as a means of figuring out how you both can learn to communicate in a healthy and productive way. Seeking outside help, notes Kruger, can help a person learn coping mechanisms to restore self-esteem and build the confidence to communicate effectively.