Jerry found a series of sexually suggestive text messages on his wife’s phone from her colleague Bruno. She’d mentioned their friendship to Jerry and how they were both the most creative graphic designers in the advertising agency. They often had lunch together. Jerry was fine about their friendship. More recently, his wife had become more preoccupied with her appearance in the mornings and what she was going to wear to work.
Then he saw Bruno’s texts to his wife, “Gee your husband’s a lucky guy having access to your hot bod” and “I know how I would look after you from morning till night” with winking emojis. Jerry’s mind instantaneously avoided the thought of them getting close to an affair or actually having an affair. He laughed it off as ‘office banter’.
What was going on in Jerry’s mind? He saw the evidence of a relationship that’s clearly moved beyond office banter yet has failed to entertain the idea that his wife and Bruno could be more than just colleagues. This has all happened unconsciously, without his awareness, and shows the power of the ego defence mechanism called denial.
Denial is an extremely common defence mechanism. Like all defence mechanisms, it’s used as an avoidance strategy when we can’t face the reality of the situation or information in front of us. Our unconscious mind denies reality to protect us from the emotional impact – it feels too overwhelming. In this case, Jerry could not entertain what might be going on between his wife and Bruno. This is different from consciously turning a blind eye or lying to ourselves when we know the reality.
Denial is helpful sometimes as it allows our mind some time to process the enormity of the information or situation until we are slightly more able to face it. We often use this defence mechanism when we are faced with shocking news. This could be the diagnosis of a terminal illness, the death of someone close to us, or that our partner wants to leave the relationship.
It becomes problematic when we allow denial to linger for too long. We need to face reality and the grief that will come in when we do. I’ve seen this with clients who struggle to come to terms with their partner leaving them. It can be pathological when it lingers. I’ve had to point to the partner’s empty seat in the consulting room saying, “Where are they?” or even more challenging “Their seat in the couples therapy has been empty for 6 months. They left home then and they’re not giving you signs they want to work on the relationship.”
As a therapist, I need to stand firmly in reality and keep moving my clients away from denial, even if it’s hard for them to hear it. My role is to help my clients face the distressing reality that their minds want to keep at bay.
Relationships can be harmed by a partner’s use of denial. I’ve seen this many times over and denial can prevent them connecting and being intimate. They feel hurt, annoyed, or frustrated when their partner denies the concerns raised. They feel isolated and unsupported by them.
Rolf shared with his partner Dimitri that their decreasing intimacy was concerning him. Rolf had already had a previous relationship end when the intimacy waned. He was left devastated. Now with Dimitri, Rolf shares his thoughts and fears about how their relationship’s deteriorating. Yet Dimitri replies, “It’s fine as we both enjoy the sex we do have.”
Why can’t Dimitri hear Rolf’s concerns and engage in a discussion with him? What can’t he face about their dwindling sex life? What Dimitri doesn’t understand is that he can’t tolerate any expression of Rolf feeling anything other than happy. His mum left his dad when he was 4 years old as she was unhappy. This prior experience was traumatic for him and his family and causes him to deny Rolf’s reality.
All Dimitri wants is for Rolf to return to a ‘happy’ state. But Dimitri’s denial never satisfies Rolf. Over the long term, Rolf will resent Dimitri, and the more this occurs, the lonelier and more unsupported he will feel. Repeated denial has serious consequences and destabilises relationships. It will for this couple too.
Image source: Shutterstock (546242338)