My partner is in denial
Being in denial is a psychological defence mechanism against acknowledging “uncomfortable truths” in your relationship. Either you or your partner might be in denial, as a way of coping with difficult circumstances by hiding from your problems – such as avoiding responsibility for your part in conflict, addressing destructive patterns of behaviour or contributing to a communication breakdown. Despite the problems being self-evident, you may find it easier to overlook them, rather than confront each other head-on.
For example, you may be in denial as a couple about how you deal with problems such as a lack of intimacy, poor communication and constant arguments. You may be all too aware of the issues, but avoid taking action to resolve things. Rather than talking through your concerns with your partner, you carry on regardless. It just seems too painful or embarrassing to bring things out in the open without descending into outright confrontation.
You may even mask your emotions behind a veneer of politeness and compliance – pleasing people and sacrificing your own needs, rather than communicating how you really feel. Instead of asserting your needs, you may isolate yourself and withdraw from contact, because you fear being judged or rejected by the people you love. Or perhaps you’re worried about revealing hidden flaws and vulnerabilities in your character, so you hide behind the safety of a false persona - fulfilling your role as a wife, partner, parent, carer or provider, rather than being your true self. Slowly your sense of identity erodes away until you feel lost and unappreciated. It may happen to both people, but you seem unwilling to acknowledge the problem.
A strategy of denial may also apply to the person you live with. Perhaps you recall a time when you’ve challenged your partner about a problem, which they deny all knowledge of, despite it being common knowledge. So being in denial can be very frustrating for both parties and reinforces a strategy of avoidant behaviour. Refusing to accept reality, is often used as a defensive reaction - excusing or a justifying behaviours that you have disowned or feel ashamed of. Even guilty about.
Being in denial may form a mutual pattern of withholding emotions and reinforcing defensive behaviours. You both start glossing over the facts, rather than facing up to them. These behaviours are often expressed by avoiding owning up to things or omitting telling the truth in order to avoid conflict. Sometimes even using a direct lie, because the truth seems too painful to confront. And each time you try you feel thwarted or dismissed by your loved one. You might feel your partner is hiding something, because of a change in behaviour, but feel unable to bring it up in case you’re accused of being paranoid. Or you fear rocking the boat and provoking yet another argument.
Being in denial is a survival strategy
All human beings are in denial to some extent. They need to be as a matter of survival, so they’re not continually overwhelmed by the decisions they make in a crisis. Otherwise,, humans might not respond effectively to stressful situations. For example, denying the potential risks to life and limb, in order to survive in a threatening environment. Being in denial can also be a matter of psychic survival after a devastating loss or trauma. Such as when a woman is going through grief after the death of her husband and still sets the table for him at breakfast because she cannot bear to accept his absence.
Lower down the scale you can go into denial as part of a strategy in intimate relationships so that you don’t have to face up to things you feel ashamed of, or want to avoid worrying about. You probably recall an incident in your own life, where you put a lid on things, or pushed aside your suspicions in order to continue in blissful ignorance. Perhaps you decided to overlook evidence that your partner was having an affair to preserve the peace; protecting yourself from a nagging sense of impending doom. But by refusing to acknowledge your fears, you have stored up trouble for later on.
For example, you may deny feeling anxious when your partner spends a long time away from home, because you feel abandoned and find it difficult to manage your feelings. And yet you deny it, on their return; harbouring resentment, shutting down and distancing yourself from your emotional contact. You might punish your partner with the silent treatment. Not wanting to reveal the hidden flaw in your character or the guilty secret about feelings of ‘separation anxiety’. So you pretend to have no knowledge of these things and bury them deep down in your subconscious.
Different strategies of being in denial
Denial can be a conscious strategy for coping with feelings of helplessness and a fear of failure in relationships. You may avoid taking responsibility for your mistakes – such as when you deny abusive behaviour and blame it on provocation by your partner. Or make excuses for your behaviour as if it were out of your control. At other times when intimacy is beginning to fade in a relationship, it may be hard for both of you to take the painful decision to end it, so you postpone the decision for as long as possible. Both of you collude in this deception, rather than face up to the facts.
At other times, being in denial can be an unconscious defence mechanism, where you’re unaware of the psychic conflict between repressed feelings and your conscious rationalisation of them. You say one thing, but feel another. Your partner may also have got used to editing his or her memory of a recent conflict, by denying it ever happened, in order to make life more tolerable. This follows defensive patterns of behaviour learned in childhood, as a survival strategy to protect themselves from the shame of showing vulnerability, or voicing their fears to parents who were emotionally unavailable.
Why go into denial?
So why is it so easy for couples to fall into a spiral of self-deception and denial? Why do couples tend to ignore the existence of uncomfortable truths in their relationships even when it’s an open secret?
It seems far easier for couples who fear ending the relationship than being alone, to develop a strong psychological defence against recognising their problems.
Some psychological studies have shown a psychological bias that clouds people’s ability to detect lies once they fall in love and become emotionally attached. The euphoria of falling in love creates a heady mix of hormones (oxytocin and dopamine) which allow people to ignore the early warning signs of their partner’s flaws and inadequacies. But it isn’t until the harsh reality of long-term monogamy, which bring these issues to the surface that people begin to pay attention. What couples have overlooked for so long – such as a lack of intimacy, trust or empathy, can quickly turn into resentment and neglect. Either way, couples need to work at changing their patterns of behaviour or continue as the same vicious cycles are being played out in their relationship.
The prevalence of denial and self-deception are also common in relationships where infidelity, co-dependency and abuse are happening. But why do people put up with this? Why do they imagine things will change if they carry on like before? Or pretend that an abusive partner will change once they save them from themselves, when this is precisely what enables the worst kind of behaviours.
As anyone who has invested in abusive relationships can testify, they do not tend to follow a rational pattern of behaviour. Nor do relationships have to be fulfilling or improve people’s sense of well-being in order to remain intact. They are often held together by manipulation, emotional blackmail and dependency, whether people are willing to admit this or not.
One may describe a list of characteristics in an ideal relationship, but after close inspection, their relationships do not match up to the ideal. They are more likely to be based on learned helplessness, fragile egos and vulnerability, than love and security.
Relationships can be heavily influenced by the way couples depend on each other for the roles they play and the transactions they engage in. For example, someone who only feels loved and valued by looking after the needs of others, may find themselves in codependent relationships where a partner relies on them to enable their drug dependency, alcoholism or learned helplessness. This creates a transactional relationship between a rescuer/carer and victim so that both partners collude with dependency in the name of ‘unconditional love’, which it isn’t. It’s exploitation.
To preserve our craving for attachment and avoid the fear of being abandoned, we often tolerate the trap of co-dependency. We may even be compliant with controlling and abusive partners, because we falsely believe our love, loyalty and commitment will help them change one day. We hold onto false hopes and fantasies in order to distort our vision of what is actually happening in a relationship. And protect ourselves from the truth. The conscious mind sees and believes what it wants to believe. And it buries the truth in the subconscious. If there is any contradiction between the two, it is split off from the conscious mind in the form of denial.
Remarkably, it is because attachments create stability, that the downside is this: your drive towards attachment and emotional contact, is less concerned with how fulfilled or content you are in relationships and more concerned that you remain together. The drive towards attachment may supersede your own needs, your mental health and your long-term happiness or independence. All in the name of “love”.
It is only by escaping the trap of denial and self-deception, that you have any chance of breaking the cycles of codependence to find yourself. This is what couples counselling is for: re-setting relationships and creating healthier boundaries so that each person can flourish and evolve. As well as learning to be honest and open in your communication; not remain in denial.
Breaking out of denial means owning up to your anxieties about change and experimenting with new ways of behaving. Accepting your need to negotiate boundaries and respecting each other’s private space and individual differences. Then re-adjusting your expectations to a shared set of values. Developing healthier patterns of behaviour and communication can be risky as well as anxiety provoking. It means to be willing to change yourself, not demand change from the other person first.
Look for the early warning signs of denial and self-deception in yourself - which can range from ignoring feelings of suspicion, excusing your partner’s behaviour and contradicting your gut-instinct. This includes making exceptions that compromise your basic needs, by rationalizing the situation so you can justify your partner’s behaviour.
In the past, this may have included not asking questions when there is clear evidence of your partner’s infidelity. Or excusing violence and abuse, by blaming yourself for provoking your partner. Making exceptions, by telling yourself that your partner’s erratic behaviour and mood swings are a ‘one-off’ when they form part of a pattern. Or telling yourself it’s your duty to sacrifice your needs, by offering unconditional love at your own expense. And compromising for less when you receive very little in return.
Change lies within you. Because your suspicions aren’t absolute evidence they should prompt you to ask questions of yourself first and investigate further – such as asking yourself whether you’ve developed an emotional block, or an unconscious defence against accepting painful truths about your own behaviour. You need to gain deeper insight into how you have contributed to this process, not constantly seek to change the other person.
You need to take a reality check and look at the evidence. Share your findings and concerns with your partner. Challenge them about what you believe if you have credible evidence that the issues are being ignored. Listen to their feedback and whether they seem honest and open to acknowledging the problems, or whether they’re defensive and attempt to close down any discussion. You may come to an agreement to change the habitual patterns of behaviour you have come to depend on, in order to make small changes and learn how to develop healthier ways of relating.
You may seek a trusted confidante; someone who can listen and provide you with objective feedback; helping you disentangle your emotions and collect your thoughts. But you need to talk with someone who won’t let their personal agenda prejudice yours.
Be true to yourself by acknowledging the reality about your relationship. All you have is your gut instinct as you can never know the truth with absolute certainty. Each person has their own version of the truth. But be prepared. This process can be emotionally painful, but it’s better than hiding behind the mask of denial. There’s no point maintaining the pretence that everything’s okay, while under the surface you’re in breakdown. You need to acknowledge and validate your feelings, not live in fear, or continually contradict yourself with self-doubt. You need to satisfy your intuition, while eliciting the emotional support of friends and family.
Gaining insight in couples therapy can be an independent and powerful way of helping you identify the problems more clearly and discussing your blind spots without fear of being manipulated. It can lead to greater self-awareness and healing as you confront uncomfortable truths in your relationships. Despite the difficulties there is an opportunity for change and growth once the grip of denial has been broken. Even hope.
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About Gregori Savva
I am Greg Savva. An experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I believe in a compassionate, supportive approach to counselling as the best way forward for my clients. I focus on helping you make sense of erratic thoughts and emotions. Offering you a chance to gain self-awareness and change for the better www.enduringmind.co.uk