Defensive Behavior: What It Is and How To Recognize It 

In a relationship, defensive behavior can be unhealthy and damaging if it is not recognized and uncontrolled. It can be so extreme that it causes the other person to feel threatened and unsafe. If defensive behavior becomes this extreme or routine, it may require the aid of a divorce lawyer.

If you find yourself in this situation, you are not alone. Defensive behavior is one of several signs that you are ready for divorce.

However, recognizing defensive behavior can be difficult because defensive behaviors are often subtle or passive-aggressive.

In this article, we will discuss defensive behavior in relationships by discussing what defensive behaviors are, how to recognize them and why they happen.

What Is Defensive Behavior?

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Defensiveness is a coping mechanism that involves attacking others to divert attention away from one's faults and insecurities. It can also take the form of defensive driving when one person speeds up to prevent another from passing them on the road.

It can also occur when someone is suffering from depression, where it may take the form of self-isolation in response to a loved one getting defensive in an argument.

Effects of Being Defensive

When defensive behavior is recognized, it can help improve communication between partners. For example, if one partner feels defensive every time the other brings up a particular topic that makes them feel uncomfortable or insecure, this could be an opportunity to open up and talk about what's bothering them in greater detail.

A negative aspect of defensive behavior is that it can be a defensive mechanism to avoid taking responsibility for mistakes or actions. As a result, this can often damage communication and trust between partners.

This defensive action is frequently used to make others believe that their flaws are the other person's responsibility. If this kind of defensive behavior isn't recognized, it may have a detrimental influence on relationships over time because no one wants to be in a relationship with someone who blames them for issues or mistakes rather than accepting responsibility themselves.

As a result, it's critical to learn how to leave or divorce narcissistic people.

Types of Defensive Behavior

There are many defensive behaviors that people use in their everyday lives. Below are examples of common defensive behaviors:

Ad Hominem Attack

Ad hominem attacks are an attempt to discredit the other person. In this defensive behavior, the accused tries to divert attention away from what they're guilty of by pointing out faults in others.

Bringing up Past Mistakes

Bringing up someone's past mistakes is a common type of defensive behavior. This defensive action is typically used to distract others from what you're currently guilty of doing. For example, if someone's spouse cheats on them and finds out about it, their partner might bring up past mistakes to justify the current infidelity by claiming that they've always cheated or had a history of cheating.

Holding Silence

The silent treatment is a way of not speaking to someone for them to recognize their criticism. This defensive action may appear harmless, but in reality, it can be devastating to a relationship when used repeatedly.

For example, if someone is constantly giving their partner the silent treatment because they believe that their partner doesn't care about them enough or isn't doing what they want them to do, this defensive behavior will only damage the relationship further.


Gaslighting defensive actions are commonly used in relationships because they can cause the other person to question their sanity and self-worth..


Guilting defensive actions are part of making someone feel guilty about something that they've done wrong. An excellent example of guilting defensive behavior is when someone is always trying to get their partner to feel bad about something they've done wrong even though the other person has already apologized and the matter resolved.


Shifting the blame to someone else when being criticized is a type of defensive behavior. For example, if someone's husband or wife is being defensive every time they have to pay for something that wasn't their fault, they are guilty of shifting the blame onto them.


Indignation entails acting like one does not need to be questioned about a topic for the other reasons listed.

Anyone or more of these situations can be toxic to a relationship, and they may lead to the conclusion that you're dealing with a narcissist. However, despite how intimidating it may appear, there are methods for successfully and productively negotiating with a narcissist.

Furthermore, you can get better prepared by learning how to identify the signs of defensive behavior.

Recognizing When Someone Is Being Defensive

While it is not always easy to recognize every sign of defensiveness, there are several ways to spot defensive behavior, such as:

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  • If they ignore or write off your emotions: defensive people will often brush off your emotions or try to convince you that they aren't legitimate. This is important to recognize because defensive people typically have a difficult time empathizing with others.
  • If their actions are always justified: defensive people typically don't see a need to apologize because they believe that what they've done is not wrong. This is significant to recognize since defensive individuals are often hard-pressed to see their errors.
  • If they turn it around on you: defensive people often play the "victim" to make you feel guilty about what you've said or done. It's worth noting since defensive personalities are frequently drawn to being the focus of attention.
  • If they ignore your boundaries: defensive people will go as far as to antagonize others if they believe that it is the only way to get what they want. Because defensive people have a reputation for disregarding other people's feelings, it's critical to understand this.
  • If they accuse someone else: defensive people will typically blame someone else if they believe their circumstances are less favorable. This defensive behavior should be recognized because defensive people usually have difficulty admitting when they're at fault.
  • If they begin to show aggression: defensive people may become defensive when they feel that someone will challenge their authority or perception of themselves. This can sometimes lead to domestic abuse, which is both painful and dangerous. Moreover, this is something to keep in mind since defensive personalities are typically defensive when threatened, and their battle sense activates.

If you're having a difficult time discerning what defensive behavior looks like, certain red flags can help provide clarity--as well as several signs of defensive personality to keep in mind.

What Causes Defensive Behavior?

Every relationship has its share of defensiveness. Unfortunately, it happens from time to time. Some individuals, on the other hand, may have a more challenging time overcoming it. This defensive behavior can stem from mental illness, a personality disorder, or trauma.

Common causes of defensive behavior:

  • Trauma or abuse in childhood makes a person crave power.
  • Anxiety or depression.
  • Reaction to conceal the truth.
  • Reaction to feeling helpless.
  • Response to shame or guilt.
  • Indication of a mental health disorder.
  • Learned behavior from others.

Though these are just a few of the causes, it's worth noting that defensive behavior is typically a symptom of some other deeper issue.

Examples of Defensive Behavior in Everyday Life

An example of defensive behavior stemming from mental illness is when someone feels anxious and constantly worries about others' thoughts. For example, when they face criticism for something they've done wrong or made a mistake on, it triggers their anxiety which causes them to lash out (ex. blame, accuse.).

An example of defensive behavior stemming from trauma is when someone has been through abuse in the past and has a hard time trusting other people because of it. So when their partner questions them about something, they lash out with defensive actions to keep others away so that nothing bad happens again.

Recognizing when defensive behavior is normal versus when it's unhealthy.

It's difficult to distinguish between defensive behavior that is simply a natural reaction and that which is toxic. However, here are a few instances to assist you to differentiate between them:

Unhealthy defensive behavior:

  • When defensive behavior is a constant problem in the relationship and it's not resolving the issue.
  • When defensive behavior is used as a way of concealing the truth.
  • When defensive behavior is used to avoid apologizing.

Healthy defensive behavior:

  • When confronted about an issue, a healthy defensive person will work through the problem by communicating with you and resolving it.
  • Healthy defensive behavior happens in a relationship where both partners are open to resolving problems together, rather than controlling one another or avoiding issues altogether.
  • Healthy defensive behavior is defensive behavior that is not defensive all the time.

The differences between healthy and unhealthy defensiveness can be subtle and difficult to distinguish. Nonetheless, it is essential to be aware of defensive behavior, as it can significantly impact platonic and romantic relationships.

What You Can Do When Someone Behaves Defensively

If someone is defensive, it can be challenging to communicate with them. But there are some things you can do:

  • Lead by example - Avoid being defensive yourself. Instead, lead by example and try not to respond defensively when they're sharing their feelings with you. This will help demonstrate that responding in such a defensive way isn't effective.
  • Give them space - If you feel defensive, take some time to yourself and return to the conversation when you're ready. This will help diffuse the tension and allow each person to speak without feeling as though they need to defend themselves further.
  • Don't invalidate their feelings - It's important not to dismiss or invalidate someone else's emotions even if what they are saying doesn't make sense by itself. Instead, explore how it is making them feel and validate those feelings.
  • Respect them - If you're defensive, try and keep this in mind. Avoid making assumptions about what the other person is thinking or feeling and instead ask questions to understand their perspective better.
  • Be a problem-solver - Consider how you and the other person would approach an issue if you were to take on a more inquisitive attitude. Consider all sides and attempt to resolve the issue through compromise.

It can be easy to ignore the warning signals of defensive behavior, which can lead to a slew of issues. If left unchecked, this type of behavior may escalate into something very dangerous. The sooner you take action when recognizing these behaviors in yourself or others around you, the better off everyone involved will be.