Identifying Your Defenses in Relationships and What To Do About Them

When couples are airing out their grievances, what they are really pointing to are their partner’s defenses: “She always criticizes me!”, “He walks away, we can’t talk about anything!”, “He gets soooo defensive”, “She becomes mean and insults me”...

Identifying your defenses that guard against some underlying uncomfortable feelings is very important if you want to break the negative cycle you are caught in together.

There are four key defenses that we use; John Gottman refers to them as “The Four Horsemen.” They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. They are interconnected and build on each other. The good news is that once you recognize them in yourself, you can do something about it.


Criticism is very different from offering suggestions or asking for your partner to do things differently together. It’s not a “I’d love it if we could do more things together”… it’s more like “You NEVER make time for me! You’re ALWAYS so selfish!”

You can imagine, or perhaps you know from firsthand experience, how that lands on the partner being criticized — it hurts, it’s shaming, and eventually something you’re going to fight back in your own way (with any or all of the other defenses). Things can escalate very quickly when you’re wagging a blaming finger around.

There’s usually a very reasonable need underneath the criticism. Take some time to identify what the underlying feeling is and what the need actually is.

So for instance, it may look like you’re just angry about the dishes never getting done, but what the real need is to feel less alone with the chores.

A gentle start-up will provide more room for being able to share your need, wish or longing and have them be heard. I’d covered this in another blog entry about how to ask your partner for what you need without attacking/criticizing. In summary, once you can identify the underlying need/longing/wish, you can speak from a place of “I” rather than “you.”


Think of contempt as the meanest version one can possibly be toward another person. Contempt is about demeaning the other, making them feel worthless, small and ridiculed. Contempt is a sense of grandiosity and powerplay.

It’s no surprise that contempt is also the single most destructive defense to a relationship and a tell-tale sign that the marriage/relationship is in big trouble (and possibly leading toward a divorce).

Walking back from contempt necessitates taking a long hard look in the mirror. Who are you channeling when you talk that way at your partner? Were you ever on the receiving end of it at some point in your life? (probably!). What is the pain that you’re trying to suffocate?

Similarly to tempering criticism, explore the underlying feelings and needs that have not been attended to. Can you verbalize them in an “I” statement rather than an accusatory “you”?

Working with contempt is often best when brought into a safe therapeutic environment in the hands of a skilled counselor who can peel away at that tough exterior. It’s unlikely to be processed alone. Whether you go for individual therapy or couples therapy, walking back from contempt will yield a connection with yourself and by extension with your spouse.


Defensiveness is the typical response to criticism. They go back and forth, and one feeds the other. It’s probably the most common cycle in couples dynamics: the more critical one is, the more defensive the other gets (because he/she feels blamed and attacked), which in turn makes Partner A feel dismissed and not heard, and thus more critical, and so on…

When I work with couples, I track their negative cycle and remind them that they created it together. It’s neither partner’s fault and no one is truly the victim. So with all things being equal, it’s essential for everyone to own their moves in this dysfunctional dance. Taking responsibility is essential for resolving defensiveness.

It doesn’t mean you just agree to everything, it means you recognize how your actions or inactions would leave your partner to feel x, y, z.

Sometimes you might not even be aware of how you are contributing to the negative cycle. Are you able to take a step back and look at the dynamics from a macro-level, without personalizing it? “My partner tells me when she asks for something, I immediately give her 100 reasons why I’m too busy. I’m legitimately very busy, but I can see that my lack of availability is making her feel very alone.” What is your common goal and what are real solutions?


Stonewalling is what we do when the criticism, the defensiveness, and contempt shut us down. Thinking of it as building a wall around yourself because that is the only place you can feel safe. So you turn away from your partner, you tune them out, and/or you physically leave the room hoping the hurricane will pass — waiting for when it’s safe again to come out.

Stonewalling and shutting down can be just as infuriating to the other partner who’s trying to get a reaction by protesting and demanding. The partner who shuts down is so overwhelmed with the intensity of emotions that he or she has to physically turn off the engine.

Stonewalling often times is a primitive way of protecting from the hurt/pain and from the acknowledgment that this important figure is the one doing the hurting.

It’s important to be able to ask for some space with the promise that you will come back to talk the issue at hand further. Notice how this is different than just walking away or tuning out? It’s not sending the message that you’re just not interested. Instead, it’s being clear that you’re overwhelmed, in need of regrouping AND that what your partner is saying is worthy of exploration in a calmer conversation.

When I work with my clients, I explore their cycle in depth; going over and over the different ways in which their negative patterns in order to start changing the notes to the music. If we can start accessing what’s underneath our defenses then we turn can to our partner from a softer place to ask for what we need, long for, and wish for the relationship.

If you would like know more about your defenses, how they keep your relationship stuck in a state of frustration, contact me today for a free phone consultation to discuss how I can help you get unstuck.