This is the fourth article on communication in marriages and relationships. In article three we started to shift the focus towards conflict and managing this conflict. We again discuss the destructive patterns in dealing with conflict and find a way forward in addressing them.

In our previous article we indicated that conflict is inevitable in all close relationships, also that we are friends not enemies; we must check how we approach difficult situations as well as trust our own ability to respond constructively.

We discussed two DESTRUCTIVE conflict patterns that tend to escalate and therefore deteriorate the relationship, namely blaming and criticism. In this article we are looking at defending ourselves in a conflict situation and the so-called “conflict dance”.


Defensiveness is a reaction to a real or perceived threat brought about by confrontation or criticism during marital conflict. In such instances where the one party justifiably or unjustifiably “attacks” the other partner, the latter feels he or she needs to defend themself. When people get defensive, they can feel obliged to overexplain themselves (try to justify or rationalize), take on a victim mentality, or retaliate.

Joan: Why did you come home so late last night, where have you been!!

Len (overexplains): Well, I suppose I could have come home earlier. We really had such a good time that I lost track of time. By the way I did tell you last week I would be late and you being so busy this week I did not want to trouble you. I did not want to call you either as I assumed you would be sleeping anyway, and I did not want to wake you up …


“I know I was late, but I had such a good time … Okay, maybe I was late, but can’t we just forget about it and move on?”


“Aren’t I allowed to have a good time? I work hard for this family!”

Len taking on a victim mentality: “Is it necessary to take such an attitude? You are always so mean to me!”

Len retaliating: “I will start coming home earlier when you stop spending so much time on your work and make more time for me. You are always ignoring that.”


“Get a life! Why don’t you sometimes go out and have a good time yourself?”


“Stop nagging …”

When you become defensive, the other person will believe that their need has not been heard. And this is going to add to the disconnect and likely even increase the conflict. There is a time and a place to talk about your own perception, but it’s not usually in the immediate moment when someone makes an ask—in fact, your position is less likely to be heard if you respond with it immediately in this way.

What to do:

Instead of getting defensive, try taking responsibility for your part, even if you believe you only own a small part of the issue. You can also try to validate their perception and reality. The likelihood is that their perception is valid and that there is some piece of it you hold responsibility for. It can be hard to admit, but it’s important for healthy relational functioning.

Joan: “Why did you come home so late last night, where have you been!”

Len: “I can see you are upset about me coming home so late last night. It was late. We were sharing about our childhood experiences and had such a good time that I completely lost track of time. Sorry for upsetting you.”

Joan: “I really was worried about you being so late …”

Once this matter is addressed it could be helpful to problem solve the situation to avoid a recurrence there-of.


Also known as pursue/withdraw, or Protest Polka this style is named because of the dance that couples get into; one person moving forward while the other seemingly moving away. In this pattern, one partner will pursue the issue while the other begins to shut it out or shut it down. The goal of the pursuer is to solve the problem or get more connection, and the goal of the distancer is to protect themselves (and the relationship) from further hurt. Ultimately, both people want a sense of safety and peace, but they want it in different ways.

The conflict dance may sound somewhat like this:

Joan: “Hey Len, can we please talk about you coming home again so late last night?”

Len: “What? Do we have to talk about this again? Are you really bringing this up? I am so tired of talking about this.”

Joan: “We need to talk about it, Len. It is really becoming a problem for me.”

Len: “It’s not a good time. Let’s talk about it later.”

Joan: “No, we need to talk about it now, or things are going to get worse.”

Len leaves the room.

If you struggle with this pattern, it’s likely it started out with the blame game pattern, and then over time the increasing anxiety from having bad conflict interactions moved you both into roles that make you feel safer—one of you preferring the independence and space and the other seeking out the connection and conversation.

What to do:

When people are stuck in this conflict dance, they are both taking steps that cause them to feel increasingly insecure and have less trust in each other.

Learning to navigate your own role in this dance is integral. If you tend to be the person who initiates the discussion, learn to consider the circumstances and your partner more. If you are the one who distances, learn how to contain yourself so you can participate in the conversation. This means you will both need to work on building comfort with vulnerability.

If you are the person who tends to pursue, you will need to learn how to take space and allow for breaks in conversation, set boundaries, and express yourself assertively.

Joan: “Hey Len, can we please talk about you coming home so late again last night?”

Len: “Yes, we can. I promised Peter that I would forward him some documents first thing this morning.  Can we talk about it in about an hour or so?”

Joan: “Sure. It’s important for me to talk about. Can I make some coffee in the meantime?”

Len: “Great! I am sure I will be done by then.”

It is important to note that pursuing or avoiding discussion may have become a “default” mode in discussing difficult matters. It may be helpful to discuss addressing this before-hand and find ways to point this out in a non-non-confrontational way when it surfaces.

Author: Peter Schultz