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Combatting Defensiveness in Blended Families

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I’m going to put this as directly as I can… Defensiveness in blended families is toxic.

We’ve probably all been there. Your body tenses, maybe your ears burn and ring, your ego tells you to shut down or put your guard up. You can feel a defensive response taking over your body. Defensiveness is the cousin of fight or flight. It’s an ugly monster that breaks down communication through stonewalling, not listening, justification, bringing up past mistakes, accusations, criticism, and/or gaslighting.

Many psychologists believe defensiveness is a learned behavior. Therefore, it can be unlearned. And the first step to making a change is recognizing and acknowledging the need for change.

What to Look For: Defensiveness In Action

To begin, let’s take a moment to inventory whether or not you engage in any defensive behavior (listed below) when you feel you are being criticized or attacked:

  • Ignore: You stop listening to the other person.
  • Blame: You dodge taking ownership and shift the blame to the other person.
  • Accuse: You accuse the other person of doing something to contribute to the conflict.
  • Justify: You justify your actions by making excuses for your behavior.
  • Deflect: You deflect by bringing up past mistakes or conflict to avoid talking about the issue at hand.
  • Invalidate: You tell the other person that they should not feel the way they do.

If any of these behaviors resonates, you have become defensive. Defensiveness can be difficult to recognize in the heat of the moment, and it’s nearly impossible to see in yourself until you’re ready to address the behaviors. 

Your body will kick into fight or flight mode if it thinks it’s in danger. Criticism can flip that switch; when you feel like you are being attacked, your body/mind wants to protect itself.

In this sense, defensiveness is a form of emotional protection, a coping mechanism.

Validate Your Feelings but Don’t Act On them

Like most coping mechanisms, defensiveness stemmed from something in your past: insecurities from being bullied, social anxiety, shame and guilt are roots of defensiveness, among many others.

If you can identify the origin of your defensiveness trigger, it will become easier for you to acknowledge and shift to a healthier response in the future. Even if you cannot pinpoint the exact root cause, validate the emotions you experience in moments when you feel criticized. In the moment, take a second to step away and reassure yourself that you are safe, and your worth is not defined by this one criticism or conflict. 

Attempt to remain open, continue to listen, and take the time you need to respond instead of react. As you become more aware of your patterns, it will be easier to recognize when you are likely to get triggered. This will allow you to plan how you will react to those situations.

Being a stepmom is hard and it’s natural to feel defensiveness in our blended families. However, it’s imperative for successful relationships that you learn to identify those defensive triggers and how to navigate through them.

Avoid Making Others Defensive 

Have I mentioned that stepmom life is hard? Like, really hard. Stepmoms tend to complain, criticize and demand as they work to find their footing in their families.

While venting may make us feel better in the short-term, it’s a surefire way to make someone else feel defensive. Especially in blended families, we need to empathize, express, and request. This approach sounds like: “I understand,” “I feel,” and “I would like/I need.”

Adjusting your approach will have a significant impact on diminishing defensiveness. For starters, try using engaging language instead of judgmental statements (Try “I’d really like to hear about your day,” instead of “You forgot to empty the dishwasher again”).

Word your requests in a way that makes the listener feel like they have control, too (“Can I request that whomever wakes up last make the bed?”).

Maintain empathy and respect for the listener, and communicate in a way that implies equality. This is especially important when you’re giving feedback about your stepchildren. Your partner is going to inevitably be defensive of their children. Empathize with and treat your stepchildren with respect, and you’ll have much more successful conversations. For example, instead of complaining that your stepkids always leave their dirty dishes all over the house, try approaching the conversation like this instead: “Hey babe, I know the kids are swapping back and forth between two homes with very different cultures and expectations each week. How could we best support them to remember our house rules about dirty dishes?”.

It should always be us vs. the problem, not me vs. you. When we react defensively, we begin to fight each other instead of tackling the issue at hand.

If you are finding that other people react defensively to you, it could be that your method of communicating is triggering them.

Defensiveness is a natural, though unhealthy, response to feeling attacked, hurt, angry, guilty, and/or belittled. Offering empathy and kind communication to those around you will go a long way in avoiding the trap of defensiveness in blended families. 

If you or your partner are repeatedly getting defensive during conversations, it may be time to seek out a 3rd party to help mediate. This is one of the most popular reasons I begin meeting with couples for support coaching. Apply at the button below to get started!

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P.S. Defensiveness in your relationship is toxic. But so is keeping score.

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