REVISITING CONFLICT AND DEFENSE FROM AN INTERPERSONAL PERSPECTIVE: Using Structured Role Plays to Investigate the Effects of Conflict on Defensive Interpersonal Behavior

Michael A. Westerman, Edward M. Steen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


We investigated an interpersonally-oriented reformulation of the hypothesis that conflict promotes processes of defense. This reformulation is based on the theory of interpersonal defense. In the reformulated conflict hypothesis, a person is said to be in a conflict-ridden interpersonal situation if pursuing what he or she wishes will happen in the relationship opens up the possibility that a feared consequence will occur. With regard to defense processes, the reformulation focuses on defensive interpersonal behavior, which is characterized by failures of coordination, that is, breaches in the flow of discourse. Ninety-six participants engaged in partially scripted real-time dialogues with a research assistant in each of four role-played relationship scenarios that were presented in either conflict (wish and fear) or nonconflict (wish and no fear) versions. As was predicted, participants' responses in the conflict condition were significantly less coordinating than were responses in the nonconflict condition. We point out useful features and limitations of the role-play paradigm, suggest how multiple methods could be used in future research, and discuss differences between interpersonal defense theory and the traditional psychoanalytic approach to defense.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)379-401
Number of pages23
JournalPsychoanalytic Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2009



  • conflict
  • defense
  • defensive interpersonal behavior
  • theory of interpersonal defense

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology

Cite this