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Professional Columns -
Relationships by Dr. Bill Austin


We are exploring another one of Dr. Gottman's Four Horsemen that can kill a relationship: defensiveness. Defensiveness has been described as seeing yourself as the victim and warding off a perceived attack. When partners are defensive they are not open to learning and are also not able to access the vulnerable feelings underneath.

Have you ever experienced this type of argument? Let's say the wife has complained about something that her husband has done. His reaction might be like this: "I'm just a terrible person. I never do anything right. I should have never married."

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Then there is the display of pouting accompanied with the silent treatment. His wife may respond, "I'm not saying you are a bad husband. You do a lot of good things."

Now it is no longer about her, but him. The focus is about how she has wounded him and how he is the victim of her sharing the problem.

It is almost like he is saying, "Look what you did to me. Don't you feel bad?"

We call this maneuver "merging." Merging is when one partner moves the focus to himself by playing the victim. He has stopped her from talking about something that was important to her because now she is dealing with his feelings and his "damaged self image."

When we merge we are not changing the way we relate. Some of us would rather act like the victim by beating up ourselves than to be accountable and make the changes that are needed.

I like the episode on "King of Queens" when Doug Hefferman's buddy comes over and wants to watch a big football game on television. Doug tells him that he has upset his wife so he thinks it is not a good idea to turn on the television. His friend asks, "What has that to do with not watching television?"

After his friend looks at him inquisitively, Doug explains, "I haven't been sad long enough."

Besides, using "merging" as a defensive mechanism, we have developed others ways of being defensive.

One way is our making excuses that there were external circumstances beyond our control that forced us to act in a certain way.

Another way of being defensiveness is called "cross-complaining," which involves saying things like "I did that because you did something worst to me."

There's also disagreeing and then cross-complaining: "You are so wrong. It was you who."

And, of course, what we call "Yes-butting": "Yes, but." The "but" discounts everything before it.

Being defensive or trying to defend ourselves may be interpreted as our blaming the other person, switching the attention away from our partner to ourselves, appearing to be interested in only our needs, or that we are justifying our actions and disregarding our partner's feelings and position.

Since defending ourselves makes the problems worse, the best approach is to be accountable for our actions, to hear our partner, and make the changes that are necessary!

Dr. Austin has decades of experience dealing with relationships. He charges clients on a sliding scale according to their ability to pay. His first book, Creating Our Safe Place: Articles on Healthy Relationships, was published in 2004. His second book, Keeping It Safe, was published in 2009 and can be purchased through,, and at the Parrish Book Store in Virginia Beach.  He is also a sought-after speaker at meetings and seminars.

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