My ex is one of the most defensive men I’ve ever had to handle. It often felt that no matter what I’d say he would take it the wrong way.
I’d frequently be accused of “fussing” as he snapped back at me when I shared my feelings.
But eventually, I did learn how to deal with his defensive nature so that we could communicate in a healthy way.
If you’re thinking “he gets defensive when I tell him how I feel” about the man in your life, then these practical tips will help.
What does it mean when a man gets defensive?
In a nutshell, men get defensive if they feel like they are being attacked.
That does not mean you were attacking him. It just means that’s how he felt at that moment.
Defensiveness is actually a reaction to feeling hurt. Rather than accept and reflect on what you say, he’s more likely to:
- Make excuses
- Turns it back on you and your flaws or mistakes
- Belittle or dismiss your feelings
- Become impatient, moody, or angry
As destructive as defensiveness seems, it serves a protective purpose. As outlined by Verywell mind:
“Defensive behaviors have the purpose of distracting you from your feelings of being hurt and feeling shamed. The objective is to shift attention to the faults of the other person, so that in turn you feel better about yourself in the moment.”
What to do when he gets defensive? 10 practical tips
1) Be mindful of how you phrase things
In any conversation, there’s what you mean to say, what you actually say, and what someone else hears.
So often the meaning shifts and takes on a life of its own in between us forming the sentence in our head and the other person hearing it.
Interpretation of what we say is going to play a significant role in how information is received. Choosing your words consciously can make all the difference in easing someone’s defensiveness.
You may have heard about the importance of so-called “I statements” in relationships.
So instead of saying “You don’t care about my feelings”, you would say “I feel frustrated when my feelings aren’t listened to or acknowledged.”
It’s a subtle shift but one which takes responsibility for how you are feeling rather than accusing your partner of being 100% to blame.
If you’re wondering why your husband gets mad “when I tell him he hurt my feelings”, take another look at that sentence.
HE hurt your feelings and can sound incredibly accusatory. A more accurate and fair representation of the truth would be that your feelings were hurt.
It might sound like a pedantic difference, but it’s important. One paints him as a villain, whilst the other takes ownership of your own feelings.
It’s also a good idea to try to avoid overgeneralizations like “always” or “never”. These types of words paint a picture of a problem being chronic. And so they don’t leave any room for acknowledging positive behavior.
It’s also not just what you say, it’s how you say it. A lot of communication is in the tone of voice we use and our body language too.
Take a deep breath if you need to but try to deliver what you have to say in a calm and soft tone of voice.
2) Ask questions
Instead of just saying your piece, ask him questions that show you care about his thoughts on the matter too.
Feedback, even in relationships, is a two-way engagement, not a monologue.
Involving him in the process shows that you respect him and that you are trying to understand his feelings too.
You can ask direct questions, like ‘what is it that you find upsetting about what I’ve just said?’ Or indirect questions through statements can be good, as they may feel less confrontational.
For example, you might say: “Please, help me understand what is upsetting you”. Or in response to a defensive comment or statement of his, you might say “I really want to know more about how you are feeling.”
3) Let him know when he is getting defensive
This tip comes with a caveat.
Shouting at him to stop being so damn defensive is quite clearly going to only have the opposite effect.
But the truth is that it’s common to have a lack of awareness about being defensive. So there’s a chance he genuinely might not know when he does it.
There’s an even stronger chance that he doesn’t realize how it impacts you. Even the most subtle suggestion can spark positive change in relationships.
By offering a polite reminder that his defensive behavior is preventing honest conversation, you may be helping cultivate more open and intimate communication between both of you.
The thing is, when your partner is feeling defensive, it can be hard to approach them in a constructive way.
Rather than laying blame or attacking directly, use “I” statements like “I feel frustrated when you become defensive.” This allows him to recognize his defense mechanisms while not making him further guarded and resistant.
This is what I learned from my coach at Relationship Hero.
With the support of a relationship expert, I was guided on how to communicate with my partner and to better understand his defensive response.
We now have a stronger and much more open and honest connection between us.
If you too are struggling with how to frame your issues with your partner in a constructive way, a relationship expert from Relationship Hero can be a great help.
4) Think about your intentions
Reminding yourself of your intentions before you talk to him about how you are feeling will help you to avoid the blame game.
If you want positive change in your relationship, then your intention shouldn’t be to purely chastise or criticize where you think he has failed.
Here’s the thing…
He may genuinely be acting like a total **expletive**, but conflict met with conflict isn’t going to get you anywhere.
People (especially stubborn people) are more likely to soften and admit any wrongdoing when they don’t feel attacked.
Communicating with a partner sometimes requires you to be direct, but never harsh.
Be sure to take full responsibility for your part in things. Are you in any way being controlling? Could you be approaching the situation in a confrontational role?
That’s not to say you are. But it’s important to ask the tough questions of yourself before you start asking them of others.
On the bright side, dealing with a defensive boyfriend or husband helps to cultivate your own patience and teaches you how to be an even better communicator.
5) Don’t take it personally
I know it’s easier said than done, but remind yourself not to take it personally when he gets defensive.
When you tell someone how you feel and they get mad, it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. When he is defensive he is likely projecting onto you his own issues without realizing it.
To his instinctive mind, if you have said something that makes him feel bad, he instantly assumes that you meant it to be hurtful.
It happens because we feel threatened by the other person’s comments and so we try to protect ourselves by projecting our own fears onto them.
The best way to deal with this is to acknowledge to yourself that it isn’t about you, it’s actually about him.
Writing in Psychology Today, psychiatrist Abigail Brenner highlights a persuasive argument for why we should all try to take things less personally:
“When we take things personally we are giving certain individuals more power over us than they deserve or should ever be allowed to have. In effect, you are allowing someone to question what you feel and believe.
“You are trusting someone else to tell you who you are, instead of relying on what you know to be true about yourself; what really defines you as a person without any outside influence. In essence, taking things personally keeps you tied to someone else and, in the extreme, can even make you feel like a victim.”
6) Choose your moment
You’ve probably heard the expression that there’s a time and a place for everything. Well choosing your moment wisely can impact the outcome.
Emotions are more likely to run high when one or both of you is feeling particularly stressed or tired.
He’s also going to be far more likely to become defensive if you are around other people at the time, for example out in public or with family or friends.
Choose a time when you can speak freely without extra pressures getting in the way.
It’s tempting to blurt things out straight away when it comes to mind, but choosing the most appropriate time can also offer you a useful pause to collect your thoughts.
It might be helpful to give yourself some space beforehand to prepare mentally for what you’re about to say. That way you can feel calmer and collected.
7) Understand the psychology behind his defensiveness
The reality is that defensiveness has a psychological cause.
For some people certain emotions can feel very overwhelming. Anger is a way of keeping them at bay. Many men do not deal well with feelings of vulnerability.
Shutting down or trying to shut you down is his coping technique. Similarly, justifying himself may feel like his best form of defense against what he feels is an attack.
Often defensiveness is a sign of lower self-esteem rather than arrogance. Many perfectionists don’t deal well with criticism because it feels like their flaws are being exposed when they work so hard to hide them.
In some cases, it can even be a trauma response. For example, in response to growing up having to deal with a controlling parent who was quick to shame and chastise.
Are there certain topics in general where he gets most defensive? These triggers can point towards the areas where he feels most threatened.
Sympathizing with our partners isn’t about excusing poor behavior. Neither is it about rolling over and saying “ok, I understand where you’re coming from so I will accept it”.
But it is about bridging that gap between us. We feel closer when we can understand each other better. When we can see past the surface level of our differences.
8) Step into your personal power
Whenever we are dealing with relationship conflict we need to draw on our inner well of strength.
Real strength is steady and grounded, and not aggressive or defensive.
Working on your own inner strength can help you approach your relationship (as well as all areas of your life) from firm and powerful foundations.
We all have insecurities and fears that can shake us and leave us struggling to find our voice in tough situations.
So how can you overcome this insecurity that can nag at you?
The most effective way is to tap into your personal power.
You see, we all have an incredible amount of power and potential within us, but most of us never tap into it. We become bogged down in self-doubt and limiting beliefs. We stop doing what brings us true happiness.
I learned this from the shaman Rudá Iandê. He’s helped thousands of people align work, family, spirituality, and love so they can unlock the door to their personal power.
He has a unique approach that combines traditional ancient shamanic techniques with a modern-day twist. It’s an approach that uses nothing but your own inner strength – no gimmicks or fake claims of empowerment.
Because true empowerment needs to come from within.
In his excellent free video, Rudá explains how you can create the life you’ve always dreamed of and increase attraction in your partners, and it’s easier than you might think.
So if you’re tired of living in frustration, dreaming but never achieving, and of living in self-doubt, you need to check out his life-changing advice.
9) Take a timeout if things start to get heated
Sometimes you need to be prepared to walk away for a bit. That way you can step back and let things cool down.
Continuing to push someone who isn’t in a space to talk will only escalate things.
If you find yourself becoming too emotional, try walking away from the conversation. If you notice he is getting increasingly defensive, you might want to have a time out.
But if you do decide to leave, make sure you come back later to finish the discussion. You don’t want to end up leaving the conversation angry or upset, which will only make things worse.
Of course, it should go without saying that you should never tolerate aggressive behavior. Aggression doesn’t just include physical violence. Verbal aggression is also not ok.
Being sulky or defensive is one thing but screaming at someone is another level. Shouting, and arguing rather than discussing can feel incredibly threatening.
If he is responding to you in a way that feels intimidating, you always have a right to protect yourself and remove yourself from the situation.
10) Keep communicating
A relationship really is doomed without the ability to communicate effectively.
It’s clearly off-putting when your husband takes everything as criticism or when your boyfriend gets defensive when you tell him how you feel.
If we think our partner is only going to fly off the deep end it can be tempting to keep quiet. But don’t let him shut you down.
Don’t be deterred by his behavior. It’s really important to try to keep the doors of communication open. Locking things inside does not fix anything.
You’re not keeping the peace by keeping quiet. The relationship problems that get swept under the rug haven’t gone away, and they will always resurface eventually.
It’s going to require some real inner strength, but try not to get defensive yourself. You may have to take the higher ground. But if you can, then both of you will benefit.
It may help to remember that fair isn’t two people contributing exactly equally to a relationship. Fair is both people showing up and giving all they have to give.
If one person has better emotional tools and maturity to handle the situation, then why not use them?
Imagine you were trying to build something with someone. You had a hammer and nails whilst they only had nails. Would you say “we’re not going to use my hammer because you didn’t bring one, and so that’s not fair.”
No, of course not. You would use the tools you both have. Relationships are much the same.
Give everything you are capable of giving and nothing more. He may simply not have the same tools as you to bring to the table.
To conclude: How do you talk to someone who interprets everything as an attack?
Bringing together all the tips, I will share what worked best for me when dealing with a defensive partner.
Firstly, I am a very direct person. I like to speak my mind and I believe that honesty is the best policy. And I didn’t want his defensiveness to change this. So, I approached the issue by being honest about how I felt, whilst trying to stay fair and mindful of the words I would use.
Second, I tried to understand where he was coming from. I’d asked myself “What could be behind his behavior?” I would try to see things from his perspective. I wasn’t afraid to ask him how he was feeling. Either way, I kept talking until I understood.
Third, I realized that sometimes, even though he wasn’t saying it, he was really just feeling hurt too, but showing it in a different way. Realizing this made me feel more compassion toward his sometimes (quite frankly) irritating behavior.
Fourth, I tried REALLY hard not to respond defensively. Even if he snapped at me, I tried to avoid getting angry at him. Instead, I would calmly state my point of view and listen to what he had to say.
Finally, I would try to find common ground. Sometimes we would agree to disagree. But we would both respect each others’ views. And, we would work together to resolve any conflicts.