The most common defense response patterns in intimate adult relationships.
Most people respond defensively when they feel attacked. It is a natural self-protective maneuver learned very early in life to ward off potential harm.
If children are in constant fear of punishment when they’ve done something their caretakers feel deserves it, they master whatever strategies they can to get out of those anxiety-ridden corners. If they do not explore and remodel those initial responses, they are likely to grow up to be adults who are so expectant of emotional attack that they have walled themselves off from intimacy.
Without the healing that quality intimacy provides, those protective walls thicken over time and those people who once found safety within them often see relationship partners as likely to hurt them, and continually test them by continuing to respond defensively to any perceived emotional challenge.
As they continue to fuel their defensive behaviors, their walls become thicker, imprisoning them within. Over time, they are in danger of becoming locked into an impenetrable emotional fortress, waiting and hoping that they will find the one person who will pass their test.
For any new trust or potential love to thrive, these self-entrapped people must be willing to explore how and when their defenses began and commit to dropping their self-defeating emotional armor. From that new awareness, they can create relationships in which those automatic defensive strategies are no longer necessary.
How Defensive Walls Begin
Recall that defenses are normal and legitimate ways to protect oneself from a perceived attack and that children learn them early in life when they are powerless to ward off or neutralize aggressive challenges. Their caretakers have the power to do whatever they wish to them, forcing the child to shield as best as he or she can. Not given an even playing field, that child learns to defend as best as possible under the circumstances.
It is common to hear children learn phrases like: “I didn’t mean to.” “It wasn’t my fault.” “I promise I won’t do it again.” “You didn’t tell me I couldn’t do that.” “I don’t remember.” “Please don’t be mad at me.” “I didn’t do it.” Those kinds of responses are helpless attempts to change the mind of the all-powerful “minister of consequences.” If that child can find a reasonable excuse, justify his or her actions, or divert from the situation, the feared punishment might be alleviated.
If their origins are not understood, those early impotent defenses manifest into more sophisticated ones later in life. When that happens, these now adult partners, when challenged, may inadvertently see their current partners as symbolic of the powerful people they succumbed to in their childhoods. Very rapidly, the subsequent fears will activate the walls they needed as children. but will now keep love away.
If you are a person who rapidly defends whenever challenged, you have denied yourself the open exploration of thoughts and feelings that successful relationship partners practice. It has had to have been frustrating and painful for you. But you can change these self-destructive patterns and learn a new way of responding even when you feel unfairly criticized. First, you must identify your own defensive patterns. Second, you must learn alternative ways to react to replace them. The following two sections will give you help with both.
Section One: The Five Most Common Defense Response Patterns in Intimate Adult Relationships
Though there are many forms of defensive interactions, they all have the goal of invalidating the other partner’s reality or validity. When that happens, the possibility of quality communication and mutual support are destroyed.
The following five are the most common. I have often watched these intimacy-destructive interactions. The couples engrossed in them do not seem to realize how harmful they actually are or what the outcome will be if they continue. It often takes multiple interventions before most couples can not only see what they are doing but to actually stop these hurtful, defensive responses.
These are needing-to-win-at-any-cost defenses. One partner tries to get the other to doubt his or her basic value or right to have an opinion. The defense is often expressed as a wipe-out statement like “You never listen,” insults like “You can’t hear anyone but yourself,” invalidations like “What makes you think I would believe you?” or low-blow attacks like “You’ve told me over and over that you can’t remember anything I say, so why would I waste my time telling you again?”
Character challenges feel like emotional assassinations to the other partner and most often result in similar counter-attacks. A person who is defending his or her very core of value is going to fight back hard, give up, or disconnect.
This defense manifests as an attempt to throw the perceived attacker off the mark. The person defending may use minimizing responses like “You are making such a big deal over nothing,” or attempt to change the subject to one in which they feel more legitimate, such as “We should really be talking about something more important here that will get us somewhere.” Many defenders divert by flipping the challenge like “Well, what about you? You do the exact same thing, only worse.”
When fearful of being erased, many defenders will try to intimidate the other partner. There are many ways of doing that. One is to invalidate like “What makes you think you know so much about this? Your argument is really weak and I just don’t buy it.”
Another would be to use others to beef up the defense like “Everyone we know agrees with me about my feelings here. They’ve all told me that you are wrong.”
When all else fails, many defenders will escalate their outrage or anger. “I’m really getting sick of this. Keep going and I’m not going to be able to stay nice.”