Exploring Defensiveness and How It Becomes a Vicious Cycle

Jun 21, 2024
A male boxer puts his hands up

Defensiveness is a psychological defense mechanism often used in response to criticism, judgment, and being shamed. Psychological defensiveness is often used by couples during conflict and can lead to a vicious cycle where both partners become critical and defensive. 


This is especially important to understand when it comes to financial conflict as defensiveness stops couples from productive problem-solving and from having financial empathy and intimacy. Early financial conflict in relationships has been shown to have a significant negative impact on relationship satisfaction over the course of the intimate relationship.


This is why it is so important to become self-reflective and aware of how you have used defensiveness in your intimate relationships and around the topic of money. Perhaps it was hard for you to see how you were hurting your partner with defensiveness because you were more focused on the pain, fear, and shame that you were experiencing. 


What Is Defensiveness?

Defensiveness is most often a response to criticism, judgment, and being shamed. A person can become defensive because of a fear of rejection, abandonment, humiliation, or failure. Here is what makes this even more challenging: we don’t have to directly experience these realities. We just have to imagine them. 


This can be at the conscious or unconscious level. We might not even be aware that we are expecting to be criticized, judged, or shamed about the way we save or spend money (amongst many other financial behaviors), but defensive reactions can still be evoked. 


As an example, I am hypervigilant (more worried than I need to be based on my relational history with my wife) about my level of earnings. As soon as something about my income is triggered, I can start down a defensive path in my mind. If left unrecognized, this can lead to a wide range of possible negative responses to my wife that she is not expecting or aware of. That’s because a large part of defensiveness happens in the privacy of our minds. 


Defensiveness can sneak up on you without you realizing it until it has already been entrenched in your relationships and done its damage. Criticism may make one partner feel worried that the other does not care for them. They may have low self-esteem or depression. They may experience self-blame, guilt, or shame about what they perceive as criticism. 


Why Am I Defensive?

These feelings and experiences may lead the person to defend themselves to try and stop feeling bad. Defensiveness results from an attempt to protect oneself against perceived threats. Just like we have physical defenses to protect our bodies (i.e. kicking, punching, screaming, etc.), we have a wide range of psychological moves to protect our sense of self. When this happens, people tend to become rigidly set in their opinions and beliefs and refuse to see the other person’s point of view. They often turn things around and blame the other person for how they’re feeling. The core purpose of defensiveness is to turn the attention away from you and toward the other person’s faults. 


Defensive behaviors can also be used to avoid conflict with other people. They distract you from your feelings, particularly feeling ashamed or hurt. Although these behaviors may make you feel good in the moment, they ultimately leave you feeling worse. 


To be defensive is to be human. We have psychological instincts to protect ourselves for a reason. Many of us were given no formal training in naming and recognizing our psychological defense mechanisms or that they were being used against us in childhood. 


We learn to use defensive responses from our families. In childhood, we are exposed to our family members' patterns of defensive responses.


Defensive patterns are a lot like fingerprints: we all have them, yet each one is unique. Some people are very open and curious about psychological defenses while others use them without an awareness of what they’re doing. Typically, it is further down this awareness continuum that the use of psychological defenses becomes problematic in our lives. 


It can be painful to look in the mirror to learn what psychological defenses you use and which have been used on you. At the same time, it is part of the path to psychological and relational well-being. Keeping up our psychological defenses is exhausting and alienating. 


Answering the question “Why am I defensive?” is a deep one that can lead to greater psychological freedom and flexibility in your life. 


A Vicious Cycle

When you direct blame at other people to avoid feeling criticized or attacked, this can end up creating defensiveness in the other person. A cycle ensues where defensiveness and criticism cycle back and forth between partners in an endless loop. Without intervention, this can be extremely destructive to a relationship. 


Types of Defensiveness

Much like a boxer uses various kicks and punches, psychological defensiveness is often used in complex combinations. The intent of defensiveness often appears to be about hurting the other person, and sometimes it is. But more often than not, the core of defensiveness is more about protecting yourself from harm. 


Here are some common defense mechanisms I see when working with couples in Therapy-Informed Financial Planning™:

  • Bringing up past mistakes. One partner will remind their partner of a “bad” financial decision they made related to shopping, investing, business dealings, family financial support, etc. On the surface, reminding a partner about their past mistakes seems innocent enough; likely you understandably don’t want them to repeat the same mistake. At the same time, there are skillful ways (like financial empathy) to bring up past experiences and talk about how you both want to grow and do things differently the next time without engendering guilt or shame in your partner. 


  • Silent treatment. This involves not speaking to someone or ignoring their attempts to resolve conflict. This is also called stonewalling. Leading marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman has found this defensive approach to be particularly damaging to intimate relationships. When it comes to your financial life, refusing to talk about your expenses, spending, or debt and their impact on each partner can have multiple negative effects both for the short and long term, such as financial infidelity


  • Gaslighting. This is making the other person doubt their reality or their memory. We all have multiple stories running through our minds at one time. Often we create a coherent storyline out of our life, but when that stops happening, we experience psychological distress. Here’s an example. One partner tells the other a subjective statement like, “You spent too much on the kids' back-to-school clothing,” but the other person's story in their head is “I used all the possible coupons I could to get the best deal.” If there is no acknowledgment of the alternative story, then psychological distress will ensue. Partners often gaslight each other unintentionally because they do not realize they are living two different stories about the same experience, especially when it comes to money. 


  • Attack. Attacking others is like a sport for some. They like to find the other person’s flaws and point them out. From the attacker’s point of view, they are “being helpful.” But when we attack back seeking out the other person's faults, we build great distance in the relationship, leaving the other person feeling as undermined as (or more than) you did by their real or imagined actions towards you. It may be a simple attack like, “You suck at managing money,” which is a global statement about ability that leaves the other person little room to defend themselves or correct the error. 


  • Blaming. This is the classic “It’s not my fault — it’s your fault” response. Blaming other people for our problems can provide some real short-term psychological relief. Blaming often has some partial truth wrapped up in it; other people can influence your financial life. But when we blame other people or groups for our financial situation, we lose our personal agency to do something different. Blaming comes from a place of us wanting others to take responsibility for the problems we face. 


  • Indignation. This is acting as if the other person shouldn’t question you because your stance is morally superior. This is a common one that shows up around money and relationships. It says, “My way of managing money is better than your way. My religion, family, political party, or social group says we are better than others, so you can’t possibly have something valuable to say or offer.” It usually comes along with strong black-and-white thinking or ingroup and outgroup values. For instance, entrepreneurs just can’t imagine why someone would want to work for a company. 


  • Playing the victim. This psychological defense is often based on prior experiences where we have been taken advantage of, exploited, or abused. Like many other defense mechanisms, there is some basis for this response. At the same time, moving through the state of being a victim and regaining agency and empowerment is part of the recovery cycle from adverse experiences. In the short run, recognizing and acknowledging that we have been a victim can lead us to start changing the circumstances proactively. For those who are or have been stuck in family systems where abuse and neglect happen, this can become a very deeply patterned way of relating to life, relationships, and the world.  


  • Minimization. Initially, this can take the sting out of an adverse financial experience. As an example, you might be saying to yourself or others “It’s not that big of a deal that I needed to file for bankruptcy; it happens to a lot of people.” Minimizing negative money experiences can help to protect us from the psychological and relational overwhelm that we might otherwise experience if we felt the full significance of our financial experiences. In time, we will need to come to terms with the reality of what we have experienced and its impact on us and those we care about. 


  • Intellectualizing. This removes things from our feelings (body sensations) and emotions (states of mind). The previous example was a combination statement of minimization and intellectualization. The part that says it happens to many people creates distance from ourselves and rationalizes that bankruptcy happens to others. This is true, but you must reflect on YOUR bankruptcy experience to help you learn and grow from the patterns that got you there. 


All these different types of defensiveness are trying to help us return to a sense of psychological, physiological, and relational safety. In the short run, they may do that. But in the long run, they can lead to greater rigidity or chaos in our minds and relationships. That is why it is so important to learn healthy communication patterns, which we will address at the end of this blog post. 


Causes of Defensiveness

There are many reasons why people act defensively. Defensiveness can be learned in childhood and may result from childhood trauma. Some causes of defensiveness include:

  • Feeling like others don't care enough about you
  • Financial judgment (i.e., not having the right clothes, being from the wrong social class)
  • Being afraid of rejection
  • Having low self-esteem or a lack of confidence
  • Watching a parent’s patterns of defensiveness
  • Fearing failure
  • Not knowing how to handle criticism
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Childhood trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to be assertive
  • Reaction to shame or guilt
  • Hiding the truth
  • Unwillingness to admit mistakes
  • Response to criticism of your behavior or character
  • Learned behavior from childhood 


The most important reason behind defensiveness is fear and shame. People who are fearful and struggle with chronic shame tend to overreact to situations because they believe their fears will come true.


Impact of Being Defensive

Most mental health conditions have a connection with defense mechanisms. Dr. Arlene Montgomery contends that “defense mechanisms are modulators of emotional arousal.” 


When our emotions become either flooding (we can experience symptoms like anxiety, manic states, PTSD, etc.) or numbing (depression, alexithymia, etc.), Dr. Montgomery helps to reframe the mental health conditions we commonly know and understand through the lens of emotional regulation.  


Unpacking and learning to use healthier psychological responses to criticisms, judgments, and shaming experiences can lessen the adverse impact of being defensive. People who are stuck in the chronic use of defense mechanisms live life with fewer meaningful relationships, increased struggles in the workplace, and more time in obsession or avoidance of their financial realities. This leaves them at risk of not being able to enjoy the fullness of their life, relationships, and the financial resources that they have available. 


How To Recognize Defensiveness

The first step toward dealing with being defensive is recognizing that you are starting to act defensively. Signs you're becoming defensive include: 

  • Blaming the other person for what they're criticizing you for
  • Accusing the other person of being defensive
  • Justifying your actions
  • Bringing up the past without a desire for resolution
  • Not listening
  • Making excuses
  • Telling the other person they shouldn't feel how they do


Overcoming Defensiveness

Once you realize you're being defensive, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why am I acting defensively?
  • Do I know how my behavior affects me?
  • How is my defensive behavior impacting the resolution of this conflict?
  • How am I feeling right now? 
  • How can I validate my feelings?
  • How can I choose not to act on my defensiveness, even though I'm feeling defensive?
  • What other behaviors would be more productive in reaching my desired outcome right now? 
  • How can I anticipate when I'm about to get defensive in the future?


Once you have some self-awareness around your defensiveness, you can learn about mature defense mechanisms. There is a lot of great psychological research on the nature and maturity of defense mechanisms. There are different systems of categorizing and ranking the level of maturity in the use of different types of psychological defenses. This table from an article in Frontiers in Psychology gives a great in-depth review of psychological defense mechanisms. 

There is a lot of great psychological research on the nature and maturity of defense mechanisms. There are different systems of categorizing and ranking the level of maturity in the use of different types of psychological defenses. This table from an article in Frontiers in Psychology gives a great in-depth review of psychological defense mechanisms. 


Ways to deal with defensiveness include building your self-esteem, dealing with underlying mental health issues, learning effective communication skills, and seeking out counseling. 


In my transformational course, The Couples Guide to Financial Intimacy, I teach couples how to avoid getting stuck in unhealthy communication patterns around money.


Would you like more one-on-one support for overcoming defensiveness in your conversations around money? Then Therapy Informed Financial Planning is for the two of you. I invite you to schedule your free 30-minute discovery call today.


Wishing You Healthy Love and Money,

Ed Coambs




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