In My Defenses

We enter our defenses whenever we sense conflict is about to start, after we have made meaning about an interaction, and mostly the entire time a conflict cycle is occurring. Our defenses also demonstrate what our cycle looks like with our partner. In some ways defenses are essential and in other ways, they get in the way of what we want most, connection. 

How do our defenses serve us?

Defenses do a job for us in that they work when we are trying to protect ourselves or our relationship in some kind of way. It would be unbearable for anyone to not have or use defenses and continue to get hurt over and over again. Typically, our defenses developed due to our primary environment growing up. We needed to find a way to adapt, handle stressors, and navigate conflict where we lived. We also saw how other people in our world handled conflict, so we may have adapted similar methods or chose methods to avoid what we experienced. The only problem with these defenses in our relationship? Our defenses hurt our partner, and their defenses hurt us. Also, our defensiveness can keep us from feeling seen or heard in what we are upset about. 

When partners withdraw, move away, or get quiet, the other partner may conclude I am not cared for, I am not important, or I am being ignored. When pursuing partners see their partner withdraw, they may think I need to get louder, hostile or critical; I need to get some kind of response so we can resolve this. When the withdrawing partner’s defenses step in, most often the person is feeling overwhelmed, they don’t want to react and create further distance in the relationship, or they are trying to find the words to make it better or “fix” it. Perhaps the withdrawing partner is feeling like they cannot do anything right and it is being proved by their partner’s angry response. While each partner is in their defenses, it’s hard to move into repair and reconnection. Although our defenses are there to protect us, it often results in both partners feeling alone in their stance. 

How do our defenses get in the way of what we really want?

Our defenses give clues to what we are feeling inside. In order to know what to do, we need to slow things down to identify, acknowledge, and take different action. We are feeling a primary, or more vulnerable emotion before we move into a defense. This primary emotion often goes unattended and/or quickly skipped over as people move into a protective stance. This primary emotion is a clue that a fear, hurt, or other primary affect has occurred. 

When partners are in their conflict cycle, whether they are both pursuing, one is pursuing and the other is withdrawing, or both are withdrawing, the chance of either partner softening is unlikely…at first.

What each partner is wanting is for their primary emotion to be seen with empathy and understanding. But this cannot happen when one or both partners are in their defenses. They become inaccessible to one another, and it becomes too risky to reach for one another. This is a reasonable fear. Perhaps partners made attempts in the past to be vulnerable and they did not receive a response they were hoping for. Walls get built, defenses get put up faster and faster, and vulnerability does not get seen or communicated. Primary emotions, fears, and attachment needs then do not get acknowledged or are responded to in a way that is needed. 

What needs to happen is a shift in perception from both partners. The withdrawing partner is doing so as a form of protection of the relationship. They often believe if they don’t move away in times of conflict, that things will get worse. There also is a shift where the pursuer’s actions are not seen as immediately aggressive, but as an act of desperation to find a way to “fix” or resolve the conflict. This elemental shift in both partners can change the dynamic from their classic conflict cycle to a new pattern. With this new reframe, pursuer partners can be less reactive and withdrawn partners can become more engaged. When we can see and feel that our partner is receptive to our primary emotions, it is safer to engage in a more vulnerable way. 

Now let me say, this change is challenging. This change takes practice. Sometimes after experiencing this shift in how we perceive our partner, the old conflict cycle still shows up. When we sense our partner’s intensity or unavailability, we do not want to risk showing our primary emotion. However, when emotional safety can be practiced over and over again, our internal system can feel that we can be met by our partner in this new way. Instead of meeting each other in our defenses, we can meet each other with our heart. 

If you have any questions about Therapy With Heart’s services please contact us.


Raquel Daniels

LAMFT – Therapy With Heart

(480) 203-2881
8737 E. Via De Commercio, Suite 200 Scottsdale, Arizona 85258