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Self-Protection or Authentic Connection

Self-protective behavior is the opposite of connection. It is not our truth. Instead, it is an (often unconscious) urge driven by past experiences, fears, or insecurities, manifesting in behaviors that seek temporary relief from emotional discomfort.

Defining your partner by her emotional armor rather than by who she is at her best is one of many ineffective ways to protect yourself.

The more you focus on her self-protective behaviors and try to guard yourself against them, the more she will continue to self-protect. This is how our nervous system works. Everything is either a cue of danger or a cue of safety. When we perceive danger, we defend, protect, and guard ourselves from the threat. When we feel safe, we relax, reveal, and connect. Differentiating between danger and safety is the work of our nervous system, and it is always operating in the background.

Self-protective behaviors do not make her bad or wrong; they make her human. You are in a relationship with all of her—the best and the worst. If you long for the best of her, it is essential to help heal the worst of her. If you are not suited for that, your relationship will suffer.

Healing is a two-person job. We are harmed in relationships, and we are healed in relationships. We are not harmed alone, and we are not healed alone. There are many varieties of self-protection:

  • Appease
  • Defend
  • Blame
  • Criticize
  • Withdrawal
  • Threaten
  • Aggressive acts (throwing, breaking things, etc.)
  • Silence
  • Yell
  • Interrupt/talk over
  • Deny

Taking responsibility is not blame. It is power—the power to speak what is true and to acknowledge the part you played in what didn’t work. We all have a part in our relationship pain, even if it’s simply that we stay, expecting a different outcome without doing something different ourselves. While that is generally not the only contribution we make to our relationship pain, it is a universal one—the one thing everyone does when they struggle to see another way they participate in their pain.

Self-protection causes pain and harms connection. When we convince ourselves that something bad is happening to us and point all fingers at our partner, we are self-protecting. You cannot simultaneously self-protect and connect; it’s one or the other. Connection heals; self-protection harms. But only always.

Typically, one partner struggles to use her voice. As a result, she vacillates between silence and appeasement and overcorrects by sharing after-the-fact things that have caused her pain in a context that surprises the other. This creates confusion and distrust about what is real or true. Usually, both things are true: “I want to get along, and a thing happened that I found hurtful.”

The other partner is often better at speaking her mind, so much so that she can struggle to hold space for, or even notice, that her love is suffering and struggling to give voice to her pain. Together, they form an ineffective dance of conflict.

In reality, the difference that ignites the conflict is not inherently a threat but simply a difference. The disagreement is an opportunity for deeper understanding, closeness, and healing. We need healthy conflict to grow. Healthy conflict is the productive acknowledgment of our differing perspectives, experiences, values, and needs. When we create space to look at these things with compassion and care, we can better understand how to move from a place of woundedness to a place of healing, from disconnection to connection, from judgment to acceptance, and from blaming to self-reflection and accountability.

There are no victims in consenting adult relationships. There are only hurt people who hurt each other because of their wounds and who don’t know how to show up differently at the moment due to emotionally dysregulated nervous systems working overtime to self-protect. When you double down on your self-protective moves, convinced that you are unsafe, you harm your relationship, which in turn harms you.

To find your way out, you must convince her and be convinced that you are safe. Safety comes from

  • Understanding
  • Empathy
  • Self-awareness
  • Personal responsibility
  • Accountability
  • Self-control/emotional regulation
  • Kindness
  • Allowing
  • Acceptance
  • Compassion
  • Affection
  • Forgiveness

You cannot express blame, shame, criticism, and meanness and expect goodness to result.

Compassionate responses are often misunderstood as endorsing bad behavior, but they involve meeting your partner where she is emotionally and offering support. Healing and understanding go beyond passively “taking” bad behavior; they create a safe space for expression and mutual understanding. Compassion helps co-regulate emotions, fostering balanced, supportive interactions and conveying love and investment in the relationship. It builds a supportive environment for positive change, not tolerating bad behavior. By promoting open communication and mutual respect, compassion enables both partners to heal and grow together, breaking negative patterns and enhancing the relationship.

Sometimes, two people in love are not the right fit to help each other heal. Sometimes, we don’t want things to be so challenging. Sometimes, the best of times do not compensate for the worst. These are tough and personal decisions to make. They cannot be made from a place of self-protection, though. They must be made from a place of calm, confident knowing.

Real change starts with you. There are no exceptions. If you are in pain, the single most valuable and effective thing you can do is set your sights on discovering how you are contributing to your pain—even if the only thing you can come up with is that you stay. And, as a reminder, that is rarely the only contribution a person makes to their relationship pain.

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