Defensiveness in Relationships: A Damaging Pattern

When a person lives their life on the defensive, they can end up being completely destroyed.
Defensiveness in Relationships: A Damaging Pattern
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 20 October, 2022

Some people end up relating to the world through a pattern of mistrust, for various reasons. They then establish aggressive relationships, either explicitly or veiled, with those around them. In fact, they live their lives between the processes of defense and attack or, as it’s popularly said: ‘on the defensive’.

In most cases, the reasons for being defensive have much more to do with the individuals themselves, than with their environment. As a matter of fact, they’re usually responsible themselves for fueling the tension in their relationships while, at the same time, resenting the reactions they receive.

This extreme self-protection, almost always without foundation, tends to provoke them to attack or violate others. It begins a repeating cycle in which they see threats in others’ attitudes even if it isn’t the case. This justifies their hostile responses. Hence they’re caught between the processes of defense and attack.

The revolution occurs when the victims cease to cooperate .”

-Karl Hess-

Angry woman thinking


In this cyclical pattern, which moves between the processes of defense and attack, it’s common for there to be a previous real occurrence. It usually begins when an injustice is committed against someone which isn’t repaired but that they don’t process either. Thus, this event becomes the starting point for an equivocal process.

Such a process takes place because it’s a means of accepting the situation, even though it’s the wrong path to take. These people fall into the trap of being victims. That’s because they’ve suffered unresolved injustice, hence they adopt and nurture the position of apparently passive victims.

This, in turn, becomes an argument in support of their attacking attitude toward the world. As a rule, it’s directed toward the specific source of injustice. However, if this behavior is fed and reinforced, it ends up becoming generalized. Despite the fact that it’s not the right way to behave, and they often even notice it, they don’t give up. Why doe this happen?

From the victim to the aggressor

Adopting the role of victim in relationships never really does anyone any good. Nonetheless, people often maintain it because it provides them with some ‘benefits’. In fact, it becomes an attitude that produces feelings of guilt and concern in others and even sometimes offers the victim certain privileges.

The victim is largely unaware of their actions. Indeed, they don’t usually decide, consciously and deliberately, to behave in this manner. It’s a position that’s based on the lack of resolution or processing of certain injustice or injustices. Nevertheless, by implementing this kind of behavior, they obtain reinforcers and gains. This ends up activating their attitude.

How is it reinforced? Unfortunately, people caught up in victimhood often create new acts of victimization to maintain their position. Usually, with their behavior, they repeatedly provoke the aggressive behaviors of others. For example, they pressurize, insist, challenge, disqualify, etc.

Deep down, although it seems unreasonable, they’re seeking to be attacked. It’s an existential posture with which they’ve ‘learned’ to locate themselves in the world. This is the terrain they’re familiar with and, in which, to a certain extent, they feel comfortable. That’s why they live their lives on the defensive.

Woman angry with her husband

Breaking the cycle of defensiveness

It’s not easy for a person in this existential position to realize the cycle that they’re generating. They perceive their defensiveness as a consequence of their own ‘weakness’ even though such weakness doesn’t really exist. In fact, it’s an inappropriate orientation of force and a certain resistance to growth.

Someone caught in this vicious cycle needs to understand that the gains they make are pretty worthless. Indeed, they stand to lose much more. They must also be willing to process the acts of injustice that they’ve been subjected to. In fact, they must really make an effort to understand the situation in a broad way, forgive themselves, and stop identifying with that particular reality.

To live a life on the defensive is to condemn oneself to deprivation. It’s impossible for these people to build genuine intimate bonds with other human beings and, of course, with themselves. Thus, life becomes a stage on which they play only a secondary role. Finally, when the curtain falls, there’s only dissatisfaction, discomfort… and nothing else.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Rubio, N. M. Un resumen acerca de las partes constituyentes del victimismo y sus consecuencias en las relaciones.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.