Protective Patterns in Couple Relationships, Part 1: The Defensive Self

If you’re married or in a long-term, committed couple relationship, your relationship probably began like many others. You couldn’t wait to see each other and share your experiences. As you exchanged your  hopes and disappointments, your partner was just as excited or sad about them as you were. He or she seemed to understand you perfectly. Your stomach fluttered as you imbibed the intoxicating elixir of love. But then . . . something shifted, didn’t it? Over time, a different pattern of relating set in, one marked by conflict, avoidance, or both. It’s not what you or your partner want, so how did it happen?

happy-couplesDuring the honeymoon phase of a relationship, our yearnings to have our deepest needs for love, understanding, and recognition fulfilled come to the fore in each partner. The potency of new love says, “This is it. At last, with this person, I can finally talk about my real feelings and needs and it’ll be perfectly safe.” The defenses that we learned to protect these core needs and feelings in our earliest relationships with family are temporarily set aside as new lovers enjoy a relationship with little or no significant conflict.

This “young love” begins to pass, however, the moment when partners begin to injure each other in old, familiar ways (Shaddock, 1998). Perhaps one partner forgets to call the other, resulting in feelings of abandonment. Maybe one partner begins to feel uncomfortable with the unspoken assumption that they should act and think alike, and the other partner that felt comfortably close is now experienced as intrusive. Whatever the scenario and the familiar hurts they reopen, such feelings awaken what David Shaddock (ibid.) calls “the defensive self,” which he defines in this way:

The defensive self acts like a protective shell around the real self. . . . Its function is to keep the real self out of harm’s way. The defensive self teaches us to avoid repeating mistakes and getting hurt again. A child who proudly shows a parent a painting and meetings with a bored or critical response will feel disappointed. And if this response is repeated again and again, the defensive self begins to develop. (p. 43)

protective shellThe defensive self ensures that the child’s core needs don’t get crushed, dismissed, or worse yet, blotted out entirely. In other words, the defensive self protects and ensures the survival of the real self. This is actually adaptive for the child, who is dependent upon his or her caregivers for physical survival. As an adult, though, the defenses learned in childhood will unavoidably interfere with creating and maintaining intimate relationships as they continue to protect the person’s deepest needs and longings from perceived threats. In part 2, we’ll consider how the defensive selves of two people in an intimate relationship create a protective pattern of relating to one another.

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