What To Do If Your Partner is Being Defensive

There are times when may you enter into a conversation with your partner with the best of intentions–remaining calm and respectful in an attempt to collaboratively resolve your concerns.  Yet before you know what hit you, your partner has become defensive, putting up a metaphorical brick wall that all of your complaints bounce back from. When your partner takes a defensive stance, s/he is not taking responsibility for the role that s/he played in a given scenario.  

To prevent a continuous cycle of attack and defensive, here are some helpful pointers: 

  • Use “I feel” Statements. Using “I” statements places the emphasis on yourself instead of your partner.  In doing so, you are acknowledging your role in the given scenario and accessing vulnerability in place of anger.  For example “I feel hurt when you look at your phone while we’re talking” is more effective than “You’re always looking at your phone and ignoring me.”  Understandably, the second statement is more likely to cause a defensive response from your partner.  
  • Avoid sweeping statements and characters generalizations.  In the second statement in the example above, the word always is a sweeping generalization made about the partner’s phone use.  These statements are untrue (surely there are times when the phone is not in use!) and will be perceived as criticism, immediately prompting a defensive response. 
  • Take responsibility for your role in events.  Interpersonal conflict doesn’t happen inside a vacuum; you make a contribution to every discussion and argument that you have with your partner.  By taking responsibility for your role, you are setting the tone of the conversation and modeling respectful communication. “I recognize that sometimes I catch you off guard while you are answering emails on your phone” is an example of how the partner in this scenario may take responsibility for their role in the dynamic. 

While these tactics do not guarantee that your partner will not become defensive, practicing these healthy communicating skills will increase the chances of eliciting a different response from your partner.  

To learn more about managing defensiveness and other communication challenges, contact one of our couples counseling by clicking below:

Book an appointment with Artemis Counseling and Creative Life

Written by Joanna Aslanian, LPC, ATR-P

Relationship Boundaries

Boundaries are the limitations that we set and enforce with all of the people in our lives.  Our boundaries are often shaped by our culture and the way that we were raised. When it comes to your relationship, it is important to establish and communicate your boundaries with your partner.  This will answer the question: what constitutes “crossing the line”?  

Relationship boundaries apply both to how you treat one another, as well as those around you–addressing issues such as fidelity, finances, and interactions with friends and family members.  For example, some people may feel comfortable with their friends or relatives showing up at their residence unannounced–while for others, this could feel intrusive. When you are in a partnership that includes a shared living space, having an understanding about these boundaries will prevent you from breaching them unintentionally.  In some cases, this may require both partners to compromise

Some of the most important relationship boundaries to clarify are those surrounding fidelity, or “cheating” behaviors.  While it may feel intuitive or obvious to you, everyone’s threshold for cheating behavior is different. Some individuals may feel uncomfortable with his/her partner having a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex, while others may draw the line at flirtation or intercourse. Surprisingly few couples take the opportunity to clearly spell out this boundary at the beginning of their relationship, and sometimes boundaries do not get asserted until after they have been crossed. 

For more information about exploring your own relationship boundaries, reach out to one of our couples counselors by clicking below:

Book an appointment with Artemis Counseling and Creative Life

Written by Joanna Aslanian, LPC, ATR-P

When Arguments Escalate

It may have begun with a heated conversation that progressed from yelling to slamming doors or throwing items across the room.  Maybe there was alcohol involved, or maybe one partner criticized the other so harshly that it sliced through them like a bullet wound.  Regardless of how it began, at some point it becomes clear to you that this is not a safe, productive, or healthy situation.

Perhaps you are able to remove yourself from the setting–leaving to take a walk or spend the night with a friend.  Or perhaps you aren’t.

When arguments escalate to the point of yelling and screaming at one another, this is a big red flag that poor communication with your partner has reached a critical mass.  The fundamental tenets of mutual respect, compassion, and understanding are missing–leaving the relationship vulnerable to a vicious cycle of criticism and contempt.

Without intervention, some couples may continue to escalate, even to the point of domestic violence. If conflicts become so heated that they reach the point of actual or threatened physical violence, both your relationship–and safety–are in dire jeopardy.  

Working with a licensed couples counselor to address any past relationship traumas or ineffectual patterns of communication can help prevent and safeguard both yourself and your relationship. If you or your partner continues to struggle with emotional regulation, supplemental individual counseling may be indicated.  

If you or someone you know is in danger, call the confidential, toll-free 24-hour state of Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline by dialing 877-863-6338.

To learn more about de-escalation during times of conflict, contact one of our licensed couples counselors below:

Book an appointment with Artemis Counseling and Creative Life

Written by Joanna Aslanian, LPC, ATR-P

You’re Both Right

During a conflict with your partner, you may find yourself falling into the common “I’m right/You’re wrong” thinking trap. You are on the defense, concentrating your energy on “winning” the argument by proving to your partner all of the reasons why your position is the correct one.  Sound familiar?

When we switch into this mode, we are more concerned with “being right” than resolving the conflict at hand. In doing so, we tune out what our partner is feeling—using a metaphorical red pen to keep track of all the corrections we would like to make once he or she has finished speaking. At this point we are no longer listening.

To avoid falling into this trap, it can be helpful to remember that you can both be right. Each of you is experiencing your own subjective interpretation of events, and all of the emotions associated with them.  Even if you can use logic or deduction to prove your point, you can never disprove what your partner is feeling.  Everyone has a right to his/her opinions and emotions.  And even though you may disagree, you can still respect and validate those experiences.

Some helpful tips:

  • Give your partner your full attention. When you feel yourself starting to become defensive, shift your focus back towards what your partner is trying to communicate.  (And make sure that you are free from any outside distractions -television, cellphone, etc.).
  • Ask clarifying questions. Instead of responding quickly, stay with what your partner is trying to say by asking him more questions.  This will show your partner that you are interested and care about what he is saying.  It will also help prevent simple misunderstandings and save you both from unnecessary heartache.
  • Validate your partner. Everyone wants to feel heard, and a simple validation can go a long way towards preventing an argument from escalating. Let your partner know that you care about her emotions by making a statement about her experience, such as “I hear how frustrated you are.”

To learn more about improving communication with your partner, schedule a couples counseling session with one of our professional counselors:


Written by Joanna Aslanian, LPC, ATR-P

How to Apologize Effectively

As couples counselors, apologizing is a topic that we are highly familiar with. Apologizing is a crucial communication tool in healthy relationships. We often work with couples on how to apologize effectively. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a half-hearted apology that just doesn’t feel genuine. It takes a genuine apology to help us move forward in our relationships.

We recently listened to the Freakonomics podcast episode, “How to Optimize Your Apology” and were excited to hear about the research that has been done surrounding effective apologies. Cultural sociologist, Karen Cerulo, partnered with fellow sociologist, Janet Ruane, to study the effectiveness of an apology. They looked at the format and content of the apology to determine which apologies are most effective. Here’s what they found is the most successful apologies:

  1. Pay special attention to how you start and end your apology. What you say first and last in an apology is what people remember. The first thing you say is a “primer.” Show remorse at the very start of the conversation and intentionally end with how sorry you are.
  2. Avoid talking about yourself. The most successful apology focuses on the person that was hurt, not on the apologizer. Steer clear of talking about yourself or justifying your actions. The research shows that why you did it is less important than your regret or remorse. People don’t want context, they want to know you are sorry.
  3. Apologize for what you did. Cerulo points to many apologies where people say sorry for a misunderstanding. This does not show ownership of a mistake. Apologize for what you did, not what someone else thought. Highlight what you did to offend someone. (Read: “I’m sorry you thought I was being rude.” Compared to: “I’m sorry that I was rude to you.”)
  4. Apologize sooner rather than later. You should make an apology close to when the offense occurs. We know that waiting to apologize tends to build frustration in the hurt partner. Owning up to your mistake earlier rather than later allows for repair attempts to begin.
  5. If possible, commit to doing better*. Expressing a desire to do better next time shows true remorse. If you are unsure of how to do so, ask. Start with, “How can I do better next time?” This shows that not only are you remorseful, but you also want to grow and learn from the mistake.

*If you offer a solution or make a promise to do better, you must follow through. If you do not follow through, your apology becomes empty words and is ultimately ineffective.

As a general rule, exhibiting authentic remorse is the most important part of an apology. Let your partner know that you are sorry and you mean it. We are all going to mess up in our relationships- its par for the course. If conflict is inevitable, then so are apologies. Remember: be quick to apologize, keep the focus on who you’ve hurt, and be intentional about sharing your remorse.

If you or you and your partner would like to work on apologizing and other communication skills, please schedule with one of our counselors below:

Book an appointment with Artemis Counseling and Creative Life

Written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.

How to Manage Criticism

Ugh, criticism! We’ve all been on the receiving end of criticism and we know it usually doesn’t feel great.

Criticism is one of Dr. John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: behaviors that occur between partners which research shows can be predictors of divorce. Gottman defines criticism as a character attack, which implies there is something globally wrong with someone. It is not just a complaint, but rather aims at who your partner is at their core.  As you can imagine, this often leads to defensiveness. While criticism can be a predictor of divorce, how criticism is managed determines the success or failure of the relationship.

Recognize that criticism and feedback are different. Expressing a complaint focuses on you and how you feel about something, while criticism places blame on your partner.  We’re all human and we are bound to experience criticism in our relationship at some point. It will happen, but it is important to make sure it does not become a pattern. Here are a few ways to express yourself effectively, without feeding into the blame game:

  1. Use a gentle start-up: Another tried-and-true Gottman method. This skill communicates respect and places focus on your feelings. You can use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to avoid blame. “You always ________ or You never ________, “ places blame and creates defensiveness off the bat. Focus on stating what you need rather than blaming your partner for what you are not receiving to more effectively be heard and get your needs met.
  • “You” statement: “You never help with the dishes. You are so selfish!”
  • “I” statement: “I know I was grouchy tonight. I’m feeling overwhelmed with doing all of the dishes. Could you help me tomorrow?”

2. Focus on how to improve: Sometimes we need to give feedback to make changes. Use specific behavior, not character traits to suggest improvements. Describe what you’re seeing. This will help you be specific about what you would like to change in the future.

3. Express appreciation: Soften your feedback by also showing some appreciation. Don’t be afraid to point out a positive when giving feedback. Even when you’re upset or in conflict, you still love your partner! Showing that helps create warmth in the midst of difficult conversations and makes requests feel less combative.

Great job if you’re incorporating some of these tips already! Be intentional and always communicate respect. Conflict is never easy, but working on how you communicate will make it occur less over time.

If you or you and your partner would like some help managing conflict or criticism, please book with one of our expert couples counselors. 

Written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.

Book an appointment with Artemis Counseling and Creative Life

Stonewalling: What It Is and How to Manage

Shut down, closed off, uncommunicative… this is also known as stonewalling. Maybe this describes your behavior, or maybe you’ve seen it in your partner. It’s a term made popular by relationship experts John and Julie Gottman. They coined the term “stonewalling” after identifying a specific negative interaction commonly seen in couples. Essentially, it is a lack of communication, often in a conflict-ridden arena, depicted by one partner withdrawing from an interaction.

Stonewalling is often a sign of emotional distance and disconnect.  Someone has become closed off and emotionally unavailable. As you can imagine, this makes communication frustrating. It’s tough!  It becomes disheartening after making many attempts to communicate with a stonewalling partner. You both may feel defensive and it gets harder to really hear each other.

Stonewalling broadcasts disapproval loud and clear. The stonewalling partner might feel overwhelmed, or perhaps has just checked out. It often looks like “looking away, hardly vocalizing, with concealed facial expressions and a stiff neck.” It’s not just an emotional response, it’s physical too.

There’s no question that stonewalling is negative. However, it doesn’t mean that there is no hope! Awareness and recognition of stonewalling is important. Once you notice that it’s happening, take a breather! Emotions are heightened, someone (or both of you!) is not able to listen, and you need to stop. Thankfully, there are physical signs (turned head, lack of eye contact) that can remind you to take a break.

As a rule of thumb, when you notice your partner’s body language changing and you can tell they are checked out, check in. Check in by asking if there’s a time you could talk about the issue later. Stay calm, keep your voice low, and offer to revisit the concern.  Try to wait at least 20 minutes if possible to allow your bodies to calm down.

If you’re struggling to combat stonewalling, seek help earlier rather than later. Fortunately, couples therapists are quick to identify stonewalling and can help break the cycle and the stress.  Conflict happens, but management is key.

This blog post was written by Taylor Walker, Ed.S.