Breaking Down The Four Horsemen of Marriage Decline: Defensiveness

Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S

January 8, 2024

Understanding the dynamics that lead to distress is crucial in the world of couples and marriage therapy. The renowned work of Dr. John Gottman at The Gottman Institute has identified "The Four Horsemen" — key negative behaviors that can predict the deterioration of a relationship. Among these, Defensiveness plays a critical role. In this blog post from Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S & Associates, we’ll dive into the nature of defensiveness, how it manifests in relationships, and strategies to mitigate its harmful effects.

The Role of Defensiveness in Marital Discord

Defensiveness is often a response to perceived criticism or attack, but rather than de-escalating the situation, it can exacerbate the conflict. It usually involves making excuses, playing the innocent victim, or responding to a complaint with a counter-complaint.

Examples of Defensiveness

  • Counter-attacking: "I forgot to call you, but you always forget things!"
  • Denying responsibility: "It’s not my fault we’re late; you always take so long to get ready."
  • Defensiveness can create a cycle where no one feels heard and issues remain unresolved.

The Impact of Defensiveness on Communication

Defensiveness can act as a barrier to honest and open communication. It can prevent partners from understanding each other’s perspectives and working collaboratively to resolve conflicts. This defensive shield, often a reaction to protect oneself from perceived criticism, can inadvertently create distance and emotional disconnection.

Strategies to Overcome Defensiveness

At Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S & Associates, we guide couples in replacing defensive reactions with more productive communication patterns. 

Accept Responsibility

Even if it's just for part of the conflict, accepting responsibility can de-escalate tension and open the door for constructive dialogue.

Listen Actively

Try to understand your partner’s point of view without immediately preparing your defense. Listening actively shows that you value their feelings and perspectives.


Reflect on why you feel defensive. Are you perceiving a threat where there isn’t one? Understanding your triggers can help you respond more calmly in future interactions.

Use 'I' Statements

Express your feelings with 'I' statements rather than 'you' statements to reduce the likelihood of your partner becoming defensive in return.

The Role of Therapy in Addressing Defensiveness

In couples therapy, we create a supportive environment where both partners can explore the underlying reasons behind their defensive behavior. Therapy can provide the tools and insights necessary to break the cycle of defensiveness, fostering a climate of mutual respect and open communication.

For Couples and Marriage Counseling in Austin, TX, Trust Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S & Associates

At Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S & Associates, we believe understanding and modifying defensive behaviors is key to enhancing relationship quality. If defensiveness has been a barrier in your relationship, we’re here to help you navigate these challenges. Together, we can work towards a more understanding, open, and connected partnership. Contact us today for marriage counseling in Austin, TX, and the surrounding areas. 

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