Dear Neil: For years I have struggled with being defensive. For a long time, I didn’t actually understand that I was acting defensively. But my defensiveness turns out to be at the root of my problems with my boyfriend. It seems that most of this behavior stems from my wanting to be perfect. I have a fear of being judged.
I had a lot of negativity growing up, and I think that might be at the core of my defensive tendencies, but I know I have the power to change unhealthy habits. But I don’t know how. Can you offer me some guidance?
Defensive in California
Dear Defensive: You are remarkably insightful about what most frequently causes defensiveness. In childhood, when you were judged to not be perfect, when you were criticized or admonished for not being good enough or not measuring up, you may have felt inadequate and unlovable. You may even have felt that you weren’t wanted or that you were going to be shipped off — or given away.
So now, when your boyfriend points something out to you that offends, upsets or disappointments him, you may be going to that childhood message that you really aren’t good enough, that you are unlovable and broken — and therefore your boyfriend is going to leave you. So of course, you are going to want to defend yourself, in essence telling your boyfriend that he doesn’t have to make a big deal out of a minor oversight or an unintended mistake, that you meant no harm and you don’t want him to leave you over it.
But the real issue getting triggered is that you fear being rejected, dumped, abandoned and thrown away because your boyfriend is criticizing you, or judging you, or admonishing you — just like you felt as a child.
Let’s imagine for a moment that the next time your boyfriend finds you not to be perfect, that you share with him these fears, and ask him for reassurance that he’s not going to leave you over this. Unless his grievance is very large, he may be able to say to you that his issue is an irritant, not a deal-breaker.
Being thus reassured that you’re not going to be dumped over it, perhaps you can allow your boyfriend to speak openly about what is bugging him. The best way to do that is to paraphrase back to him what you hear him saying — without inserting your explanation or defense at all. After he has had an opportunity to say it all, ask him to make two requests of you that you could reasonably do in the foreseeable future that would reduce his irritation or defeat his issue entirely.
He may struggle with an answer — he may not know what will fix the problem. But if you are patient with him, he will hopefully find two requests for you to try out. If you can say yes to his two requests — and actually follow up and do what he asks — then do so. You will have let him get it out and you will be working to defeat his grievance—and you will have done so without resorting to getting defensive at all.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 22nd year of publication and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777 or email him through his website at www.heartrelationships.com. He is not able to respond individually to queries.