What do you mean I'm defensive?

How can I not be defensive if I'm being attacked?

Published May 4, 2005 8:47PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am wondering what it means when my (ex-)girlfriend says that my being too defensive is the reason our relationship will not work. What really confuses me is how to respond to someone when they say, "You're being defensive." Any response by nature would come off as "defensive," right?

I was in a fast-moving -- and short -- relationship with a girl, and we fell in love with each other. Then it seemed to fall apart as quickly as it started, and I traced the turning of the tide to one day when I got a little impatient with her. When she brought up that she was bothered by my getting impatient with her, I apologized, accepted responsibility for hurting her feelings, then explained the reasons for my behavior to her, but from that day on things just weren't the same.

She suddenly became highly critical of me and started bringing up things that she saw as potential issues that we would have to work through if our relationship was going to work out. For example, she suggested that I modify my behavior around her friends because they are more conservative than I am (even though I got along very well with her friends, in my opinion, and they seemed intrigued at how "not" conservative I am). She also urged me to consider cutting back on my hobby -- something I am very passionate about -- so that I could join her in her hobby that she is passionate about.

Those are only two of many cases (or "ultimatums," since each case sounded to me like it was either her way or the highway). But she interpreted my responses as my being defensive, or difficult, or negative, when all I did was explain to her that these things are a part of who I am and were a part of me when she fell in love with me. I told her that it seemed as if she suddenly thought there was something wrong with me that now needed fixing, and I asked her why she thought I needed to change myself now, when before she had been telling me how much she admired those things about me.

Furthermore, she started seeing a therapist soon after we got involved, and she said it was because I was bringing up a lot of her issues (although she did not tell me about this until after things started to go bad, and I saw no real signs of any issues, either). She suggested that I also seek counseling to deal with my issue, which was "being defensive," and said that it was the only way to save the relationship. Much as I loved her -- and still love her -- I had to say no, and I broke up with her.

It's not so much that I'm denying that I can be defensive (who doesn't get defensive when they feel like they're being attacked?), but I had the feeling that there was much more going on and that my "defensiveness" was just the issue of the moment and would be immediately followed by some other issue later.

I just need a little help with understanding what she could have possibly meant when she said I'm too defensive. She never bothered to clarify that other than to say that I should ask a professional if I didn't already know. While it's too late for us, it would help to understand this a little more before I get involved with someone else.

Mr. Defensive

Dear Mr. Defensive,

I remember when I was first told by a woman that I was being "defensive." I was like, What? I thought, as you did, that I was simply responding to an attack. But I have come to understand that what some women call "defensiveness" often involves a response that is disproportional or inappropriate. In some cases, your "defensiveness" can even be frightening. When a man "defends" himself he sometimes assumes a threatening posture -- he raises his voice, he rises and moves toward his antagonist, he gesticulates vigorously. He is showing himself to be strong when that's exactly what's not needed.

Say you bump me on the sidewalk and don't say "Excuse me." I feel annoyed at the bump and insulted at your failure to acknowledge it or apologize. So I say, "Hey, watch where you're going!" And you say, "Hey, the sidewalk's too narrow, and besides, I was reading this book."

That's not information I happen to be interested in at the moment. What I want is an apology, clear and simple, no explanations. I want my dignity restored. I want recognition as a person who deserves an apology. I want civility.

I might be in the wrong -- perhaps I should have seen you blindly stumbling down the street and gotten out of the way. But to me, it's about the way I feel, not about why you did it.

She calls you "defensive" because you're defending yourself instead of giving her what she wants, which is validation, acceptance, courtesy. She's hurt, it has something to do with you, and she wants something from you. It's about her, not about you.

But don't start in trying to fix her. That's the last thing she wants. She doesn't want you to explain why she shouldn't feel hurt. That won't help. She wants you to deal with the fact that she's feeling something. So give her something. Work from the heart, not the head.

Now, in your particular case, you had some arguments and you broke up. Fine. But perhaps because she has just begun therapy, there was a lot of talk about "issues" and "defensiveness." Therapy is supposed to help people change their behavior, not just give them a new vocabulary.

So let's describe what actually happened: You got short with her (were "impatient") and hurt her feelings ("brought up issues"). She criticized you for it (suggested you "modify your behavior"). She said it bothered her (told you not to do it again), and you apologized (made up an excuse and promised not to do it again). Then she accused you of acting boorish in front of her friends (suggested you modify your behavior around them), implying that her friends are more well-mannered (read "conservative") than you are. Then she said you should stop surfing so much, which you really love (cut back on your favorite hobby) and play golf with her and her friends, which you would really hate (join her in her hobby). And then the fight escalated and played out over a period of days or weeks.

Now, it may be that you do act defensively, that you're overly sensitive and tend to take things the wrong way. Perhaps you could benefit by understanding what a woman is actually saying to you. If she asks you to stop surfing so much, she may really be asking you to spend more time with her.

Perhaps it bothers you that she does not speak with literal precision about what she wants. But consider how your relationship became so "fast-moving." She didn't say to you, "You know, I like your ass, so let's have a fast-moving relationship." You communicated nonverbally that you were attracted to each other, and that kind of nonverbal communication worked well to get things rolling. So next time you're in an emotional situation, pay more attention to what's going on nonverbally and less attention to proving your case.

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