The #1 Best Way To Stop Being Defensive in Relationships, According to Therapists

Someone told you to stop being so defensive. Your response? "I'm not defensive." Wait, was that a defensive statement? It may well have been. Defensiveness is common, but it's not always the best approach (to say the least). Fortunately, there are helpful ways to learn how to stop being defensive in relationships.

"When we react defensively, we are feeling threatened," says Terri Cole, MSW, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist and author of Boundary Boss. "When we feel threatened, our fight, flight, freeze response gets activated, flooding our system with adrenaline. It’s natural to want to protect ourselves."

But there's a difference between, say, swerving to avoid a car accident and refusing to accept constructive criticism from a partner about your habit of scrolling on your phone during dinner. The latter could be silently wreaking havoc on your relationship.

"When you are regularly defensive, people stop wanting to share their truth with you," explains Cole. "Defensiveness inspires others to walk on eggshells, which does not invite deep conversations or connections."

And conversations and connections are critical to communication—a cornerstone of a healthy relationship.

Trying to fix defensive behavior can be challenging, especially if you're defensive about being defensive. But experts have shared pro tips on how to stop being defensive and why it'll help your relationship—and you—in the long run.

Related: 25 Questions for Your Next Relationship Check-In

Why Is Defensiveness Harmful to Relationships?

Defensiveness can cause a conversation to take a nasty turn or shut it down.

"Defensive behavior in relationships creates a barrier to communication," says Vanessa Bradden, LMFT, owner of Lakeview Therapy Group in Chicago. "We react when we need to respond."

Bradden says that we feel the need to react when we feel threatened, but it creates an unproductive cycle of negativity.

"The harmful nature of defensiveness makes couples feel like a merry-go-round, which creates feelings of hopelessness and distress," Bradden explains.

And kids may become collateral damage if a couple has them. Older research from 2003 found that children notice parents' tactics in marital conflicts—including defensiveness.

"Children respond with increased negative emotion (especially sadness) and lower happiness, and these responses, in turn, increase children’s risk for emotional and behavioral problems," says Dr. Jessica Stern, Ph.D., a research scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

Related: 5 Signs You're the Toxic One in a Relationship

How Do You Know You're Defensive?

Time for a gut check. Cole suggests using this checklist to assess whether or not you're too defensive.

  • You silently review a list of reasons why the negative feedback isn’t accurate.

  • You start giving excuses or blaming someone else (i.e., “You didn’t give me enough time” or “Jenny didn’t do her part”).

  • You start feeling anxious the moment someone starts to give you feedback.

  • Your reply to most criticism with, “But…”

  • You respond by throwing someone else under the bus (i.e., “Bob didn’t do his that way either”).

  • You become sarcastic to deflect the feedback.

  • You use closed body language (like crossing your arms) toward the person providing feedback.

  • You stop listening to what the other person is saying.

  • You start quickly listing a series of points to justify your behavior.

"If you recognize yourself in more than half of these scenarios, working on being less defensive might be in order," Cole says.

Related: This Is the One Thing To Ask Yourself To Be a Better Partner, According to a Therapist

What's the Best Way To Stop Being Defensive?

If too many of the above rang true, Cole suggests moving from an immediate reaction to conscious curiosity, which means asking questions and taking a beat before responding.

"This requires you to stay calm and be willing to really listen to what the other is saying."

Braden agrees.

"By engaging with a curious mind, we invite someone to join us," Bradden says. "Validation makes others feel heard, and curiosity removes judgment, which is a trigger for defensiveness."

Related: 25 Red Flags That Signify a Toxic Relationship, According to Psychotherapists

How To Be Consciously Curious Instead of Defensive

First, Cole suggests looking inward in a non-pressure situation.

"You need to understand why you are the way you are," Cole explains. "You need to want to change. You can seek to understand your own defensiveness blueprint by looking at the way the adults in your life growing up reacted or responded."

For example, adults may have punished you harshly for mistakes.

"You might naturally feel self-protective and become defensive when someone expresses anger, frustration or disappointment to you," Cole says. "Remember, now is not then."

Knowing the root of your defensiveness can give you an important perspective during tense moments. In these moments, Bradden suggests starting by acknowledging what a person is saying to hammer home the "validation" part first. Then, start asking questions.

"One way to do this is to say, 'I am sorry you had such a difficult day. How can I help?'" Bradden says.

Genuinely listening to the responses is also key—defensive people may be so busy thinking about how they'll respond that they miss key details of a conversation. Try to reframe the value of listening to the other person.

"What might be interesting, truthful or worth hearing [from] the other person's perspective?" Dr. Stern suggests asking yourself. "Turning toward your relationship partner with genuine curiosity is a powerful antidote to defensiveness and can help de-escalate a conflict."

Related: 16 Things People With High Emotional Intelligence Often Say, According to Psychologists

Other Ways To Stop Being So Defensive

Take Responsibility

It's a tall task for someone with defensive inclinations, but Dr. Stern says it's important.

"Owning up to our part in a conflict, working to change our negative patterns and making a genuine apology for causing harm are essential steps to repairing the relationship and working toward less defensiveness," Dr. Stern says.

Related: 35 Simple, Sincere Phrases To Express Empathy, According to Therapists

Understand Your Triggers

Is there a specific situation that always seems to have you playing defense? Take note—Stern says you can use this to anticipate defensive behavior and make meaningful changes.

"Reflecting on your triggers may also reveal if there are especially critical or aggressive people in your life who elicit uncharacteristic defensiveness." Dr. Stern says. "If it’s safe to do so, consider having an honest conversation about the hurt they’re causing. You can also use this information to choose relationships that make you feel safe, secure and less defensive.

Related: 35 Phrases To Disarm Your Inner-Critic, According to Therapists

Practice Mindfulness

Dr. Stern says that defensiveness doesn't just affect us mentally.

"When we feel defensive, our body responds with the biological stress response," Dr. Stern says.

Bradden agrees, noting that sometimes defensiveness may show up in the form of butterflies in the stomach or chest tightness. She suggests counteracting it by counting to 10 before responding.

"Using this technique habitually can help you learn to slow down negative feelings and choose a different approach," Bradden says.

Related: The #1 Most Surprising Benefit of 'Shadow Work' and How To Use This Simple Tool

Or, try something even more basic—breathe.

"Slow, deep belly breathing with a long exhale goes a long way to calm our biology enough to think clearly."

Practicing mindfulness regularly can help this response come more naturally.

"As little as 10 minutes a day practicing mindfulness, like meditation, breathing exercises and journaling, can create more internal calm," Cole says.

Next up, The Benefits of Mindfulness—Here’s How to Live In the Here and Now (And Why You Should)