Removing Another Horseman

Last week I shared one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Contempt. By way of reminder, these are the four attitudes that, if they show up in a relationship, will destroy it. This week I will share another Horseman – Defensiveness.

Defensiveness Defined

It is the attitude that creates a barrier to true listening and understanding because of a real or imagined threat. Defensiveness is primarily concerned with self-preservation, it focuses only on ones own perceptions and therefore poisons real communication negates empathy.

Defensiveness can be aggressive or it can be passive. Aggressive defensiveness comes mainly in the form of an attack which tries to set the opponent back to weaken their argument. In a conflict this often shows up as an attempt to flip the quarrel. For example when one person in the relationship expresses a complaint the other person immediately fires back a negative example of their behavior.

Passive defensiveness is a tactic that can be described by this phrase; “talk to the hand because the face ain’t listening”. There is a stubborn unwillingness to consider the other persons complaint and will change the subject, avoid contact or do anything else possible not to be in the conversation.

How do you know you are being defensive? A good rule of thumb is when we are creating a response in our heads when another person is talking. When we do this we are not listening to understanding but rather listening to defend. Another way of telling we are slipping into the defensive mode is when we feel attacked or condemned. Defensiveness is a natural response in these cases. But unless it is a physical attack our being defensive will only escalate the conflict – it never resolves it. Conflict is reduced when the parties feel understood and their feelings are honored. By the way, did you know according to research that 69% of all relational conflict is perpetual? That means that we really don’t resolve most arguments we simply learn to understand and create some accommodation or compromise. Good marriages are not conflict free – they just learn to live with inevitable differences in a way that shows kindness, patience, long-suffering and love. Sounds a lot like the Fruit of the Spirit doesn’t it. 

The great antidote to defensiveness is the willingness to die to oneself – for that is what it feels like when you feel misunderstood and attacked and don’t in turn defend ourselves. As a believer in Christ I find my identity not in my performance or in another person’s perception of me but in who God says I am. I have already been condemned as a sinner and I have been forgiven and raised up as a Child of God so the worse and best has been said of me. I can handle the revelation of my imperfections because I have the sure hope that God is continuing to work on my character.

… being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
— Philippians 1:6 NIV

Here are some of the keys to removing defensiveness from our conflicts

  • Be determined to listen for understanding not for rebuttal
  • Calm yourself with the confidence of being loved by God and that this is an opportunity to grow
  • Attempt to connect with the feelings of your spouse even if you can’t understand their logic
  • Remember that this problem may be perpetual and therefore look for compromise not for ultimate solutions
  • Don’t let past unresolved conflicts emerge. Stay in the present moment.


As always if there are questions or anything else I can help you with don’t hesitate to reach out.