3 Ways You Deal With Defensive Listening in Marriage

For spouses to have a godly marriage filled with joy, peace, romance and devotion there are several things that must happen.

And, several things must not happen.

Defensive listening must not happen in communication.

And, the person delivering the message must consciously communicate in a way to reduce the possibility that the one hearing the message will get defensive.

Read that last sentence over again.


Because…we often fail to understand that sometimes, the person we are communicating with reacts defensively because of how we communicated our message.

In the following list, I will provide 3 examples of defensive listening along with 3 responsibilities that both the speaker and the listener have in the interaction.

Let these defensive listening examples be used as mental cues that your mind goes to so that you can hold yourself accountable while communicating.

Before we get to the examples, let’s get a better understanding of what defensive listening is.

What is Defensive Listening

In this article, I defined defensive listening from my personal observations of over 20 years.

I was curious how other people sought to define this abstract idea so I did a little internet research for this article you are reading.

ambush listening
Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels

My quick research consisted of typing ‘defensive listening’ into the google search bar and clicking the first 3 links non-ad links to see how defensive listening was defined.

  1. Regain.us defined it as “taking something that is said as a personal attack, no matter the intention or real meaning behind the statement”.
  2. Marriage.com says, “Defensive listening is when someone takes an innocent comment as a personal attack on them.”
  3. Kell.indstate.edu says, “taking innocent comments as personal attacks (listeners misinterpret or project feelings of insecurity, jealousy, and guilt, or lack of confidence in the other person).

Do you see a pattern between all the definitions?

All the definitions included the word ‘attack’.

Your spouse is listening defensively when they perceive something that you say to them, as an attack.

Of course, if what is said does come off as an attack, whether it be through tone or message,(direct or indirect) then the goal shouldn’t be to stop them from being defensive.

The goal should be to improve our communication.

Examples of Defensive Listening

1.)Your spouse cooks a meal and puts the meal on a plate then serves you. You take a bite of the food, then say, “it needs some salt.”

Listener– probably “hears” that the meal is not good(and feels attacked)then gets defensive and says, “it’s a new recipe.”

  • instead- ask, “if I put salt on it do you think it would taste better?”
  • why say that- maybe they are poorly communicating that “it does taste good, and adding salt would make it taste even better”

Speaker I have learned over the years that sometimes when you are going to give what may be perceived as a negative comment, it is often wise to give a positive(compliment) before the negative(criticism).

  • Instead-“Mmm, this tastes good. I think if you added a little salt it would taste even better.”
  • why– you acknowledge that the meal that they just spent time preparing is good. That acknowledgment feels good and preps them to receive suggestions of how they can make the meal even better.

2.)Your spouse has this flaw you really want them to work on and you say, “I hate when you do that. I wish you would work on that.”

Listener– probably hears that who they are in their entirety are flawed, not just one aspect of who they are.

literal listening definition
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Their defensive response leads them to give their spouse the ‘silent treatment’ and to withdraw from any conversation with them for the rest of the day.

Maybe they would not talk to their spouse for several days.

  • Instead-understand that your spouse is your ‘mirror’ showing you things about who you are that you can improve. We often don’t see the booger(flaw) in ourselves, and that is why the ‘mirror'(our spouses) are good for ‘checking our appearance’.
  • why-It is good to have someone hold us accountable for moving the ‘speck’ in our eyes.

Speaker– the word “hate” is such a strong word. Rarely is using that word in relation to your spouse going to lead to a positive outcome. Find other synonyms.

  • Instead– maybe you can say ” I really do not like that you do that.” Or, “when you do this it makes me feel this way and I don’t want to feel this way by someone I love so much.”
  • why– certain words act as triggers for defensiveness. As the speaker, you have the responsibility to choose the right words based on the knowledge you have of your spouse that won’t lead to those triggers.
insensitive listening examples
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3.) One spouse says to the other, “you’ve changed.”

Listener– as crazy as it may sound, the person hearing “you’ve changed” may think that their spouse is saying that they are not the same person that they fell in love with.

  • Instead– ask for clarification. What has changed about you? How have you changed?
  • why-hearing “you’ve” changed shouldn’t be taken as you in your whole being has changed. Those questions help you get to the specifics instead of you feeling that your whole being has been attacked.

Speaker- your responsibility has to do with your choice of words and how those chosen words are interpreted by your spouse.

I may tickle you and you may fart.

I may tickle someone else and they may sneeze.

The point is, people, respond to things differently.  

“You have changed” may be taken as who your spouse is in their entirety is no longer someone good that you approve of, like, or love.

That’s not a good feeling.

  • Instead– if you notice a significant, real change, you can point it out specifically. Maybe say, “do you remember when we used to hold hands a lot? Do you think we still hold hands like that anymore?”
  • why– approach is everything. See how the suggested approach seems less confrontational?


Achieving Non-Defensive Listening

If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this.

Communication involves at least two people being responsible for their words.

If your spouse gets defensive, the first thing that comes to mind shouldn’t be “you are so sensitive” or “stop getting defensive.”

The first thing (as the speaker) that should come to mind is “did I say something that may have caused their defensiveness?”

If you approach defensiveness in marriage from the perspective of ‘taking the plank out of your eye’ then defensiveness in marriage will be a rare occurrence.


Give me a situation of defensive listening that you would like me to help with.

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