Greetings from The Gottman Institute! We hope you’ve had a wonderful weekend. This week on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we continue our series on The Four Horsemen with Horseman #2: Defensiveness.

Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that its perceived effect is blame. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.

Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late, it’s your fault.”

Antidote: “Well, you’re right. Part of this is my problem – I need to do a better job managing my time.”

We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on the rocks. When we feel accused unjustly, we fish for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, or are trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, or are blowing them off.

She: “Did you call Betty and Ralph to let them know that we’re not coming tonight as you promised this morning?”
He: “I was just too darn busy today. As a matter of fact you know just how busy my schedule was. Why didn’t you just do it?”

He not only responds defensively, but turns the tables and makes it her fault. A non-defensive response would have been:

“Oops, I forgot. I should have asked you this morning to do it because I knew my day would be packed. Let me call them right now.”

Although it is perfectly understandable for the male to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t have the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. He fails to solve the problem, and ends up introducing the second horsemen, his defensiveness adding kindling to the flame. Dr. Gottman talks to Anderson Cooper about defensiveness in the first half of this short clip:

In our following post, we are share an exercise to help you learn to fight off defensiveness and prevent the second horseman from stampeding through your relationship.

More in The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen: Defensiveness
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.