Defense Mechanisms in Relationships: Empowering Insights for Healthy Communication

Nov 15, 2023
Problematic couple standing in front of each other in the kitchen.

Understanding Defense Mechanisms in Relationships

Defense mechanisms play a critical role in our relationships, often acting as a safety shield against painful feelings and negative emotions. They serve a purpose - to protect us from emotional distress. Whilst at times they do just that, at other times defense mechanisms can me more of a hinderance than a help.


What are defense mechanisms?

Ego defense mechanisms were first conceptualised and identified by Sigmund Freud. They are the tools we use to protect us from distressing thoughts, negative feelings, and traumatic events. They are our subconscious strategies that we use to shield us from uncomfortable emotions.

For example, when faced with stress, a person may employ the defense mechanism of regression, reverting to an earlier developmental phase, which results in heightened dependency or fits of anger. Another example is an individual who turns to denial as a coping mechanism when met with confrontation.


Don't be fooled...

Defense mechanisms are tricksters - we use them to protect ourselves and yet more often than not they end up causing negative consequences for us and our relationships when left unaddressed. It's important to unveil our defense mechanisms so that we are not letting these unconscious processes run amuck.

Defense mechanisms aren't inherently 'bad' or 'good', they are tools for safeguarding our mental health.

That being said...


Defense mechanisms can harm relationships

When these processes are performed unconsciously, as they are most of the time, they can cause harm to our relationships.

In a triggered state, we don’t consider the impact of our behaviour on our partner nor the consequences for our relationship. When we act in such was, the problem is that our ego defenses can push our partner away. Our fight or flight mode can make us say or do things that will hurt and offend our partner because we’re not being caring or respectful.

Each time we use a defense mechanism, it has the potential to erode the foundations of our relationship. Continual cuts can create deep wounds that become beyond repair.

In tense situations, defense mechanisms add fuel to the fire. Our ego defense mechanisms never address or resolve an issue because they’re an attempt to escape the source of painful feelings.


12 common defense mechanisms

1. Denial

A woman looking distressed with many liquor bottles in front of her.

First we have denial, one of the most common defense mechanisms. Denial is an avoidance defense mechanism where we refuse to accept the reality of a situation or the information in front of us. We use denial to protect us from the emotional impact of a situation.

Here is an example of denial: Beck promised Marc that she wouldn't drink alcohol at home anymore. Marc notices that the vodka bottles keep appearing in their recycling bin. Instead of asking Beck about it, he decides it must be the neighbours using their bins. 

Like Beck and Marc, denial can create bigger problems because it warps our sense of reality. It can harm the connection between us and our partner and prevent our couple development.


2. Repression

Repression is an ego-based defense mechanism we use to try and protect ourselves from feeling the distress of past thoughts or memories by hiding them inside us. We just can’t face them, so we push them deeply down. A lot of the time this is an unconscious process.

Repression is about forgetting an experience ever happened or forgetting what we’d rather have not have seen, heard, or felt.

Repression is particularly common in people who have experienced trauma. It develops as a survival instinct, allowing people to push through difficult experiences when emotions would be unmanageable in the moment.

Despite acting as a protective measure in the short term, repression can be greatly harmful in the long term. When we repress genuinely painful memories - leaving them unprocessed - it can lead to PTSD, anxiety, sleep disorders, social and relationship problems, physical illness, or an inability to be intimate with our partner.


3. Projection

Two female couple smiling sweetly at each other.

Projection is a defense mechanism we use when we attribute our own unconscious anxieties and preoccupations on another person. It is an avoidance strategy, where we use other people as an escape route for our own emotions and inadequacies.

Projection can take on both positive and negative aspects. There are times when we positively project things onto others. For instance, when we encounter a potential romantic partner, we project a sense of 'specialness' onto them, elevating them to a level beyond ordinary human capabilities. We also employ this mechanism with individuals such as actors, musicians, or anyone we hold in high regard.

On the flip side, if we feel we have unacceptable or unwanted attributes, our ego plays tricks and misattributes them to others. We create a fantasy or story around them that isn't necessarily the truth. In doing so, we disown parts of ourselves and try to relocate, or discard them by projecting them onto someone else. 

For example, consider a person who had a particularly strict teacher during their school days. This strict teacher, who exhibited unnecessary rigidity and harshness toward students, employs projection as a means of exerting control over others to avoid the internal sense of lost control they experience. This projection may manifest as criticism, labelling the students as 'too disorderly' or 'too disruptive,' when, in reality, they are a typical group of children.

This isn’t the same as purposely blaming someone for something we know is our responsibility. It’s unconscious.


4. Splitting

Splitting is an ego defense mechanism typically used by young children before they develop distress tolerance. Splitting involves categorising people or beliefs into good or bad, positive or negative. It is a type of oversimplification and can harm relationships, distorting our perception of others and events.

When we use splitting, we often view ourselves and our lives in extremes. We take an unconscious shortcut and categorise objects/people/behaviours/situations into binaries, failing to grasp the complexities and grey areas. Things become two-dimensional.

One of the most obvious ways splitting is seen is in the way we assess people:

'Oh Mike, yeah he is great!'

'Ugh I thought Macy was awesome, but she was so rude the other day so now I'm not a fan'

'Taz sucks!'

Instead of recognising the complexity of people and the human experience, we jump to reductionist reaction formation and dull the situation down.


5. Regression

A guy looking stressed out while sitting in the sofa.

Regression is a mechanism used to revert to the behaviour or emotions of an earlier developmental stage in our lives in order to unconsciously ‘escape’ and avoid dealing with unwanted thoughts and situations.

Regressed behaviours can include temper tantrums, throwing things, hitting our partner, whining, or using a baby voice.

Whilst these behaviours are commonly seen in children, many adults also use regression. When we can’t deal with life’s complexities or distress, we unconsciously tap out of being an adult and revert to our behaviours of childhood. 

Within our romantic partnerships, this can pose challenges. Regression can catch our partner off guard, as they witness our adult self seemingly vanish when we engage in outbursts, shouting, stomping, striking objects, or retreating to the bathroom.

It's important to recognise that regressive actions rarely resolve conflicts; in fact, they can be detrimental, eroding trust and presenting an immature image in adult relationships. If unchecked, regression can lead to lasting issues in a relationship, as emotional maturity plays a vital role in sustaining a healthy partnership.


6. Rationalisation

Rationalisation is particularly common in people with avoidant attachment styles. It involves using logic to justify a mistake, attitude, or feeling when taking ownership feels too humiliating or shameful. It is used to avoid taking responsibility for our own actions, words or behaviours.

We often resort to rationalisation to either justify our actions or create external excuses, effectively shifting the blame away from ourselves. In this process, we lean on what seem to be logical explanations, even when deep down in our unconscious, we recognise that something isn't quite right. It's a way of sidestepping our own impulses, emotions, and desires - anything we've labelled as unacceptable.

Rationalisation is unconsciously deceptive. When we rationalise our behaviour, we avoid taking responsibility and learning how to make better choices next time. Over time, the excuses and avoidance caused by rationalisation will erode trust, alter how our partner views us, and weaken our relationship. 


7. Intellectualisation

This ego-based mechanism occurs when we remove all emotions from our response and focus instead on quantitative facts. This occurs when we choose to focus on the intellectual consequences of external events rather than any emotional ones, to remain in the safe zone.

This behaviour is similar to rationalisation, and some would argue that this type of defense mechanism is simply a further extension of rationalisation. Men tend to use this ego defense more than women, especially if they were raised in environments that discouraged the expression of their true feelings.

Partners often experience frustration and isolation when their significant other shifts the conversation toward the intellectual realm, effectively invalidating their emotions and experiences. Being on the receiving end of intellectualisation can make them feel unheard, as their emotional experiences are brushed aside, and replaced with purely intellectual facts. This approach can come across as condescending, causing the intellectualising partner to be perceived as cold, unfeeling, lacking empathy, or difficult to connect deeply with. Over time, this can erode the sense of security and comfort within the relationship.


8. Displacement

Displacement, as a defense mechanism, can be seen as a highly destructive form of escapism. It unfolds when an individual redirects their emotions toward a person or object that appears less threatening than the initial source of distress or discomfort. For example a person who takes our their workplace anger on their children is using displacement to divert these emotions to an easier target.

In essence, displacement occurs as a means of moving sexual or aggressive impulses away from their true source to a less threatening target, effectively detaching emotions from their true origins. By diverting this emotional energy elsewhere, individuals create a sense of reduced threat and manage to avoid addressing the core issues that trouble them directly.

Displacement can be highly harmful to a relationship, and can lead to increased distress and seemingly unprovoked outbursts. It is an unhealthy way of dealing with frustrations, and often ends up with other people being sucked into the distress of your emotions. 


9. Sublimation

Sublimation is a more socially acceptable defense mechanism and is viewed as a constructive form of escapism. It occurs when we take our unresoved emotions and channel them into productive outlets that feel safer and more appropriate. Common avenues for sublimation include painting, music, sport, crafts, and cleaning. We can think of sublimation as a flight response, despite the fact that it occurs in socially acceptable ways. 

In contrast to displacement, sublimation doesn't involve destructive behaviour but is instead seen as a constructive outlet. This subtlety often allows sublimation to evade notice, even though internal conflicts and ongoing issues may still be simmering within us. It can facilitate the repression of emotions and plays into narratives of pressure and perfectionism.


10. Compartmentalisation

Compartmentalisation is a defense mechanism that involves segregating various aspects of our life into distinct categories as a means of protecting ourselves from unwanted or conflicting emotions. It essentially tucks away specific feelings, sometimes never to be retrieved. This is another defense mechanism that men tend to use more frequently than women.

In the context of a relationship, our use of compartmentalisation can be a source of frustration for our partner, as it hinders the development of two-way emotional intimacy. We refrain from sharing experiences across these segregated compartments, and we may find it challenging to empathise with our partner's emotional experiences. This can create an impression of coldness and emotional unavailability, leaving our partners feeling as though their experiences are not truly acknowledged or validated.


11. Reaction Formation

This defense mechanism is used when we when we make an effort to evade confronting our overwhelming or distressing emotional reality by acting in a manner contrary to how we truly feel.

These efforts can vary in complexity, ranging from subtle to overt. An illustrative example of reaction formation is seen in an unhappy couple who post glowing messages about their significant other on social media. In this way, they choose to overlook their distress and dissatisfaction, as the content of these messages starkly contradicts their actual reality.

Reaction formation deprives the relationship of authentic relating and the ability to work through the distress one or both partners experience. 


12. Dissociation

Dissociation is an ego defense mechanism used to momentarily escape and disconnect from ourselves, our memories and our uncomfortable feelings in response to a stressful or traumatic situation.

Dissociation allows us to gain momentary relief from distress. It ranges from milder forms such as daydreaming, to more inhibiting forms that make it near impossible to remain present in daily life and show up for ourselves and others.

It's a mechanism frequently adopted following experiences of trauma. When we've felt powerless in the face of a traumatic event, or a series of such events, we may unconsciously turn to dissociation to distance ourselves from the pain or fear in that moment or until the traumatic episode subsides. This coping strategy can then become a recurring pattern to shield against the sense of unsafety associated with the original trauma.

Dissociation can also be induced through external means like alcohol, drugs, pornography, and gambling. Dissociation has the potential to significantly strain relationships, particularly when accompanied by substantial unresolved trauma.


Remember, we don't choose our defense mechanisms

Black woman looking worried and sad while sitting at the couch.

Defense mechanisms are part of our relational templates. They are unconsciously encoded in us from a young age as we learn how to relate to the world, and we use them to defend ourselves in times of conflict and distress.

For example, if you experienced a household with high emotional volatility as a child, then as an adult you may be more likely to use avoidant defense mechanisms like repression and rationalisation to avoid escalation and highly explosive emotional situations. If you don't know how to deal with emotions like anger, you might resort to displacement and compartmentalisation.

You don't choose to respond this way - it is encoded within you by your early life experiences.


Are all defense mechanisms bad?

Not all defense mechanisms are inherently bad. They help us cope with overwhelming experiences so we can get on with our day-to-day lives. We don’t always have the energy, capacity, safety, or an appropriate environment to process or cope with difficult emotions, and these behaviours can protect of us in those moments.

For example, denial can be very helpful if we can’t process the emotional load of a particular moment, so we unconsciously trick ourselves that it’s not happening. And deflection helps us avoid tricky emotions that we just can’t get into at that moment.


The impact of defense mechanisms on relationships

Couple sitting beside each other on the couch, looking sad.

Reliance on ego defenses can lead to increased emotional distress if not identified and managed correctly. Avoidance of painful memories or traumatic events by employing defence mechanisms will negatively impact our mental health and the health of our relationships over the long term.

Many individuals tend to avoid dealing with painful feelings, preferring to bury them deep down, hoping they'll eventually fade away. However, they are parts of us. Emotions need to be expressed and dealt with in proactive and psychologically safe ways. We must accept reality, and develop self awareness in order to understand our own defense mechanisms and how they might be impacting our relationships. Introspection is one of the most powerful tools for change - and the best part is that it is 100% free and 100% accessible to anyone who wants to make a change.

Self-awareness draws attention to these cognitive processes, enabling us to make more conscious choices - to react not out of habits, but out of understanding. This can be achieved with a variety of psychological strategies. If you cannot develop healthier coping strategies on your own, clinical psychology and other professional support are fantastic tools that provide effective methods for nurturing healthier relationships. Other practices such as meditation and mindfulness can also help you create space for emotions.

Remember, if you are struggling with defense mechanisms that are damaging your relationships, you are not alone. We all use defense mechanisms, and none of us are perfect humans. However, if you want to create a heathier dynamic, with effort you can choose to move away from unhealthy defense mechanisms and develop healthier coping strategies. 

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