Is defensiveness crippling your relationship? Do you feel regularly on edge, reactive and punchy? Read on for our process for managing defensiveness.

Recently, Byron shared a new idea with Francine. Instead of encouragement, Francine responded with, “When will you get time to do that?!” The conversation immediately terminated in gloomy withdrawal.

Afterwards, we unpacked the discussion. Francine explained that she was trying to protect her heart from future disappointment. Byron revealed how he feared he would be blamed for the strain his work puts on our relationship.

Sigh. We wish it weren’t so, but clearly, after 30+ years of marriage, we are still very much trying to master the art of relationship.

In this case, we were both reacting defensively. Defensiveness is a self-protective response to a perceived judgement, criticism, rejection, or risk of future disappointment.

While it is a natural reaction, ironically, it rarely protects our hearts. In fact, highly respected relationship scientist Dr John Gottman says that a pattern of defensiveness is profoundly destructive. It has led him to name ‘Defensiveness’ as one of the relational “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

Defended hearts become hardened hearts

While the intention of our instinctual reaction is to protect ourselves from harm, three things happen in a chronically defended state.

The first is that we become primed for disappointment. We’re constantly on the lookout for how our spouse is failing us, with our confirmation bias seeking the negative interpretation of every word, action, and expression from the other.

The second is that we avoid addressing our interior wounds. Instead, we go on the attack; pushing back, finding fault with the other, and giving excuses as to why something is not right, won’t work, or won’t help.

This leaves our interior healing, undone. And that makes it harder for us to connect, just when we most need and crave the other’s love.

Thirdly, we are closed to growth. None of us are perfect, and our rough edges show up most acutely in our intimate relationships. We both need to hear from our loved ones how we can be better, holier, more of the person God created us to be.

When we are in a defended state, we are closed to these prompts from our spouse. All our energy goes into protecting ourselves rather than learning the lessons and leaning into growth.


The good news is that we can take intentional action to reset a defensiveness pattern.

The first step is to recognise and own when we are operating from defensiveness and call a ‘time out’. When we’re emotionally defended and physiologically aroused, we need to step out of the hot zone, separate, and calm our nervous system.

Before reconnecting, we prayerfully examine the factors at play in our exchange, including our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and needs. Asking, “I wonder why I am reacting like this?” helps us maintain non-judgemental curiosity as we invite God to reveal the root cause of our defensiveness.

Often, there is some deeper unresolved wound or issue from our past that was triggered by our hapless spouse. Understanding the roots helps us own our reaction rather than blaming our spouse.

When we’re ready, we reconnect, acutely aware of the sacred trust required to open our wounded hearts to the other. Timing is important for this conversation, so it’s best to choose a time when we can both give it our full attention.

Finally, we each ask what the other most needs from us right now. It might be a hug, an affirmation of our goodness, more time together or some time apart.

A process like this won’t prevent us from being triggered or becoming defensive, but it will contain the damage and facilitate a quicker recovery. And with every successful application, we become more self-aware, more confident in our love.


Originally published at SmartLoving. Photo by Helena Jankovičová Kováčová.

Published On: February 21st, 20240 Comments on Defending Our HeartsTags: , , ,

About the Author: Byron and Francine Pirola

Married for 25 years, with 5 children, Byron & Francine Pirola are the founders and co-authors of the SmartLoving Series – marriage enrichment and marriage preparation courses designed to help build successful and resilient marriages. International speakers and authors of numerous articles on marriage, more than 3000 couples have attended their programs, workshops and conferences in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain Byron & Francine are Executive Directors of the Marriage Resource Centre from which they run SmartLoving programs and produce digital resources. Francine graduated from Fordham University with a Masters in Religion and Religious Education. Byron is a founding partner of the strategic consulting firm, Port Jackson Partners Limited, and a Director of both listed and unlisted companies. He holds a PhD from the Commonwealth Centre for Gene Technology, Adelaide University.

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