Being Defensive: Break a Bad Habit

I’ve often watched my parents, of over 30 years, interact with each other as if they were still dating. Their whispers, knowing smiles passed between each other, stolen kisses and my father’s gaze on my mother—as if it was the first time he’d ever laid eyes on her—eventually peaked my curiosity. I asked my mother what the key was to having such a dynamic relationship after so many years. She simply stated,

We keep things cleaned up as we go.”

Several months after my husband and I were married, we began fighting a lot. We were going through a big transition at the time—moving to another country to be exact. As we were both trying to accomplish everything it takes for an international move, there grew a consistent feeling of underlying tension every time we interacted. We were both on edge and I realized we were getting into a habit of responding to each other defensively.

What was going on?
When I finally stopped running around for a moment and reflected on the reasons for my frustration, several possibilities came to mind. First of all, I realized that both of us had been very independent prior to marriage and had different ways of doing things. Since we were newly married, we had not yet developed a way to work together, and doing things our own way was simply not working.

Another thing I discovered was that we were not spending consistent quality time together, which also meant not communicating. Talking, reading the Bible and praying together before bed had become an early habit for us, but as it got closer for the big move, those times in the evening together became hit or miss.

What to do?
I began thinking about what we needed to change. I did not like automatically responding to my husband defensively, so I went to him with my concerns and guess what? We both ended up being defensive. After a long conversation about the issue, we decided there was no better time than at that moment to stop that habit.

Keep it cleaned up as you go.
If you and your spouse have begun a habit of interacting with each other defensively, here are some steps you can take to break it:

  1. Time Out: I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this one! But it is key. In order to stop the rut that you’re beginning to or have already fallen into, stop and sit down with your spouse in order to mutually recognize what is troubling you. But remember when you take that time to stop, make sure it is a good time for both of you. It needs to be a time that is set aside when you can both think about and discuss the situation.
  2. Listen: Not just the “waiting quietly while your spouse speaks for your own turn to speak” kind of listening. Respect your spouse by really trying to understand their view of what happened, or is happening. It’s quite possible that you see things differently. Actually, it’s quite probable! Remember, you are two completely different people, but you are a team—A team who loves each other and wants the best for your marriage. (Disclaimer: I understand there are occasions where one or the other spouse may not be willing to participate in this sort of confrontation or discussion. My advice to these marriages is to seek godly counseling.)
  3. Rebuild: Remember the power of “I’m sorry.” A defective building cannot be rebuilt without first demolishing the flaws and getting rid of the malfunctioning pieces. Once that has been done, you can rebuild a much stronger fortress, on solid ground. For my husband and I, the way we work to put good habits into place is to ask each other what would have been helpful from the other spouse in each particular situation. We then begin rebuilding by talking through what we can do better in the future.

The next time you find yourself being defensive with your spouse, remember: Take a time out to listen and understand each other, then discuss ways to do things differently in the future. Reacting to each other defensively is a habit that is built over time, stemming from not addressing issues as they present themselves.

Keeping your marriage cleaned up as you go is a great way to prevent a habit of defensiveness and ensure that your marriage is growing into a healthy and strong relationship long into the future.


Bethany Stutzman is a registered nurse who grew up on the mission field in Colombia, South America. Her exposure to the third world has fostered a love in her to serve people in underdeveloped nations and she has been blessed with many opportunities to do so. She recently left her job working for a nonprofit organization whose goal is to provide free healthcare in developing countries to get married, follow her husband to Ireland and pursue an advanced degree in her career. While she is in Ireland, she hopes to continue with her hearts desire of serving people through writing and blogging.

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