Defensiveness is reactive, similar to the defensive plays in football, where the defense reacts to the actions of the offense
In relationships, defensiveness can be both a feeling and behavior. Typically, a defensive feeling is triggered by criticism, put-downs, shaming, intense sadness, or anger.
As a result of the feeling, you exhibit behaviors such as being sarcastic, giving the other person the silent treatment, being critical, or demanding that you are right and the other person is wrong.
“It comes down to their expectations of the way people should act or respond,” said Nelson. “When people are highly offended, they have their own ideas of how people should respond to them, how people should act to them in certain situations, how people should react in certain situations. And if that doesn’t happen, they feel slighted.” Marissa Nelson
Purpose of defensiveness
As a defensive person, your behavior is a distraction from your feeling of being hurt, shamed, criticized, or possibly, the idea that your thoughts or actions could be wrong.
The objective, whether realized or intended, is to divert attention away from your own feelings or faults to the other person so you feel better about yourself, at least for the moment.
Defensive behaviors can erode a loving, secure relationship into a nasty conflict, turning partners into adversaries.
Pointing out the other person’s flaws results in them becoming defensive and a vicious cycle with hurtful comments lobbed back-and-forth unless steps are taken to manage the conversation in a respectful way.
Dennis and Gracie had been married for a little more than a year. At first, they rarely had any serious conflict. They were very much in love.
Dennis soon became very easily offended which led to periods of pouting with no attempt to resolve the conflict. Some days he would become offended numerous times before leaving for work. When they returned home he was usually happy and in a good mood, but the issues were never addressed or resolved. He still refused to talk.
He began making fun of Gracie every time her thoughts and ideas or statements differed from his. It would then end in an all-out argument with him not listening to a word Gracie said but demanding he was right and she was wrong.
Often, he would make a statement accusing Gracie of taking her stance or position just to get back at him.
At work he had fallen into a similar pattern of reacting to events and comments, getting offended and pouting or arguing.
Gracie began to feel like a terrible person saying, “I’m not trying to hurt him or make him angry. Am I really that offensive?”
She got a phone call from one of her friends who worked with Dennis. “Is Dennis alright? Is he sick? He’s always moping around the office like he’s mad or offended at everybody.”
Am I defensive?
It’s not always easy to tell if you are engaging in defensive behavior. Read the following and see if anything resonates with you.
- If you stop listening to what the other person is saying.
- If you accuse, criticize, or blame the other person for criticizing you or for their hurt feelings.
- If you explain, excuse, and/or justify your behavior or words, as if, there’s always a good reason why your defensive behavior is acceptable.
- If you bring up past issues or events where the other person was wrong instead of resolving the current issue.
- If you are challenged, you could be prideful or arrogant and tend to act defensively.
- If you get offended and strike back when someone points to one of your blind spots or where you are wrong or disagree with you, you are defensive.
You are not defensive if:
- If you are exhibiting humility and Christlikeness.
- If you are yielded to God’s teaching from the Word and others.
- If you extend mercy and grace to the other person.
Mercy is withholding the punishment you feel the other person deserves.
Grace is extending loving actions to the other person even though you feel they do not deserve it.
Causes of defensiveness
Have you begun to recognize your defensive behavior? If so, you are probably wondering what caused it or why it started.
Here is a list of typical causes or origins of defensive behavior:
- Feelings of fear or insecurity.
- Early childhood abuse or trauma.
- Inability to be assertive or feelings of anxiety.
- Reactions to feelings or shame or guilt (possibly being shamed by someone during childhood).
- Shame or guilt from hiding the truth.
- Attacks on your character or behavior during childhood.
- Some become defensive when they see the need to change but can’t make the change.
- For some, defensiveness is a learned behavior during childhood, where one or both parents displayed defensive behavior and the child picked it up as normal behavior.
The Biblical way to resolve conflict
Healthy conflict is good! Everybody deals with misunderstandings and negative or hurt feelings from time to time. Learning how to deal with conflict helps to eliminate defensiveness and build healthy, trusting relationships.
In today’s culture, it’s difficult to find many people who know how to resolve conflict in a healthy manner.
In the Bible, God outlines ways of resolving conflict in any relationship, even if the other person is not a Christian.
Romans 12:19 ESV “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
As Christians, we are to follow Jesus’s example when he walked this earth. First Peter tells us how Jesus handled criticism and abuse without getting defensive.
1 Peter 2:23 ESV “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
If you find yourself in a conflict situation, stay calm and apply the Biblical principles given here.
Usually, when applied correctly, the other person will respond appropriately.
Pray: If the other person is a believer, pray together before starting to resolve the conflict. If not, take a few moments to pray silently for the Holy Spirit’s help.
Be first to take steps toward resolution even if you feel you’ve done nothing wrong. Especially, if the other person is being defensive or right fighting. Meet their aggression with grace and mercy. Talking to the other person face to face instead of through email, text, or phone calls helps communicate what you really mean instead of leaving the other person to misunderstand and draw inaccurate conclusions from what they read or heard. Keep your discussions private, if at all possible.
Matthew 18:15 NKJV “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.”
Goals: Set goals with the other person, so you both are working toward the same resolution. A good start could be agreeing to understand what the other person means about the issue at hand, not who is right. You don’t have to agree about the issue, just understand.
Ephesians 4:3 NKJV “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Listen closely: Paying attention to what the other person is saying will allow you to understand their position. Allow the other person to speak first. Listen with your heart as well as with your eyes and ears. Hear the pain in their voice and body language. Allow the person to finish without interrupting.
Proverbs 18:13 ESV “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
Proverbs 29:20 ESV “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
Use Empathy: Validate the other person’s feelings before attempting to give your story or opinion.
James 1:19-20 ESV “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
Tell Your Story: Avoid assigning blame or criticizing. Acknowledge that it is understandable that the other person may perceive the situation differently.
Proverbs 18:17 ESV “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”
Ask for forgiveness: Be first to ask for forgiveness and apologize for your words or actions that could have been offensive.
Colossians 3:13 ESV “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Make a plan: Set up the ground rules and how you will deal with any future conflicts.
Proverbs 17:17 TLB “A true friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.”
Learning to calm the defense
Gracie got to her wits’ end. She had no clue how to get Dennis to communicate or why he was so defensive. One day she said, “Dennis, I love you very much, but this isn’t going to work. What we have isn’t a marriage. It’s two people living in the same house separately. This isn’t good enough for me.”
For once Dennis heard what Gracie said, “Are you saying you want a divorce?”
“No, but if we can’t communicate and resolve our issues I see no other option.”
Dennis agreed to go to Christian Marriage Counseling. They began learning how to resolve conflict according to God’s Word.
Dennis’s defensive behavior and being offended began to disappear.
Both learned how to keep their cool and communicate in a peaceful, loving manner, which is Christ’s way.
They no longer left issues unresolved giving satan an open door to influence and affect their conflict resolution or their relationship in a very destructive way.