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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Denial: The Good and Bad of this Defense Mechanism for Relationships

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 13th 2007

In a New York Times Article published Tuesday, November 20, 2007 columnist Benedict Carey writes that "Denial Makes the World Go Round." Carey states that denial is "the use of psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households." Ernest Becker wrote a powerful book many years ago about the psychology of life and death entitled The Denial of Death in which he discussed the fact that we are able to function on a daily basis by denying or ignoring the overwhelming anxiety- provoking fact that one day we will die. And so, we deny many unpleasant realities of life and relationships that, if we faced them, would disrupt our families and relationships with loved ones. Therefore, denial is a form of inattention and even blindness to certain realities of our lives and relationships.

As Carey points out it is in our marriages or committed intimate relationship that denial is busily at work much of the time. We use it to overlook the flaws of our partners and to even alter our view of flaws by turning them into positive attributes in the way we view them. This is necessary to maintain relationships. For example, stubbornness in a partner can be reformulated into someone who has a strong sense of morality. In the same way, a jealous partner can be viewed more positively as truly loving and passionate. As Carey points out, this idealization of the partner is what makes for lasting relationships.

The article points out that recasting an event so that it can be viewed as acceptable, is a form of denial that can become the basis of forgiveness. Therefore, if a spouse is found cheating that word, "cheating," can be recast into "a moment of weakness," or "a mid life crisis," or, "it was merely sexual and without any love or romance." In this way a couple can move on with their lives despite the fact that there was an extramarital affair.

However, denial can easily slip from an adaptive mechanism to continue to live life into a real self delusion with disastrous consequences.

Examples of the Danger of Denial:

1) For example, many years ago we had to confront a mother with the fact of her adolescent son's serious drug abuse. In fact, he was in such bad condition that his face was covered with infections; he was dirty, unkempt and barely able to make sense when he spoke. Yet, she had failed to notice any of these dramatic changes in his appearance and speech. With him sitting in the office (this was in a High School) right in front of all of us she baffled everyone in the room through her continued denial that anything was wrong. It was not until he admitted to her all the bad situations he was getting into that she finally "opened her eyes to the facts" and was able to begin, with great pain and grief, working with the committee to her help for her son.

Without this intervention this young man was on a definite road towards an early and tragic death.

2) Another example of denial and its dangers is when a family refuses to see a serious problem in one of its members and then makes any discussion of the issue taboo. Perhaps someone has become a heavy drinker, stumbling into the house late each night in a state of extreme inebriation. Everyone conspires to keep silent about the problem. Besides the dangers of refusing to deal with alcoholism in the family, the veil of silence begins to spread to any related issues that might touch upon the alcoholism. As time goes by more and more issues are relegated to the area of silence. The members of the family become expert at behaving with great politeness, never daring to step on one another's toes so that nothing of importance is ever acknowledged let alone worked through.

During my years of private practice in mental health, I have repeatedly seen this type of denial at work in many families. One family refused to face the fact that one of its female children had been raped. It simply was not discussed. Another family had a long history of eating disorders among its women going back generations. The fact that the oldest daughter time was frighteningly skinny went unobserved until she became so ill that she required hospitalization. Only then, after the medical doctors confronted the family, were they able to admit that their daughter had a serious eating disorder.

And so, like most things in this life, denial can serve useful purposes in helping us to minimize insults, infractions and insensitivity in others, so that relationships and families can continue to function. On the other hand, denial can be extremely dangerous when people refuse to see that there is a serious and life threatening problem.

What are your experiences with denial? Your comments and observations are welcome and encouraged.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Denial defense can get you in big trouble - - Oct 28th 2013

    I had a situation where my husband was obsessed with fantasies of me having sex with other people while he watched and even participated. I didn\'t have a problem with fantasies but when he began to manipulate people/friends and co-workers in our 'family run' business where our children work, it caused a lot of problems. I didn't see it at first because he was cleverly saying things to plant the seed but I didn't catch on. After he coerced these events to happen I realized he has a serious problem. My friends husband has OCD and doesn't like to leave the house so we planned a movie night at our house and the night they picked happened to be the evening that I have a class and I would get home a half hour after my husband. My friend would sometimes get there before me. That's when my husband began planting the seed and began manipulating. He would say subliminal things about her being curious about me and vice versa. i never placed any notion on it as I just brushed it off as a compliment knowing that it would never happen as far as I was concerned. One evening when my friend (who is happily married) stayed over because of a snow storm - looking back I now think it was a scheme - came into our room half naked.  I was shocked and embarrassed so I even kind of laughed. I wondered what she wanted so late and after we were tucked in bed, she proceeded to begin to makeout with me and then turned to have sex with my husband. I should have demanded she leave immediately but I was in DENIAL and didn't react as quickly as I should have. I ordered him not to go through with it and whispered to him to ask her to leave. He turned to make out with me as she watched and the denial was still taking precedence. I thought my heart was going to come out of my chest. After she left the next day, I couldn't stop wondering and I had to know what made her behave this way as she was a very conservative and devoted wife madly in love with her husband. So when she came over the next week for movie night, i planted a recorder while I was at my class. She left around 10 p.m. as she did prior to last week. What I heard the next morning, took me over the edge. He even compared her to me and I was at the bottom of the totom pole. I learned that my husband is a very manipulative person and he was manipulating both of us only she misunderstood and thought he was giving her the signal to have sex with him. This made him even more in love with the idea and changed his manipulation agenda to keep it going for the attention he was getting. I realize he has a way of having an affect on people; almost like a spell. And I realize how vulnerable some people can be. i texted her about the manipulation and that there would be no more movie night and we ended up in a triangulation text fight at our dinner table which really threw me. I just couldn't believe this was happening. She said that I was just mad because I didn't get what I wanted and that floored me. I never wanted ANYTHING. I actually liked her friendship. But she is so gullable and her mind is convinced. I was so devistated by all of this chaos that I left my husband to take time to think. I don't want to live with a manipulator that causes such damage. He put the kids up to getting me back but on top of it, this 'once a friend\' told some of our employees her take on it and my kids hated me for being the troublemaker and now I'm in the middle. And to top it off, my husband went with it and manipulated them against me and gloated at the favoritism!!! It's a very mind-bending chapter of events. I didn't see it coming but I've learned a lesson in denial. My advice is to \\\\\\\\

    Big White Elephant - Laura - Aug 22nd 2011

    I was awarded custody of my two nieces and have been raising them as my own for nearly 7 years.  Their mother, my sister, is an alcoholic and drug addict. My parents are in complete denial - they actually believe the children are on extended vacation with their aunt.  My father accuses me of stealing my sister's children because I don't have any of my own; he has called me a monster in front of the children.  My mother recently screamed at me, in front of the children, "they are not your children" when she overheard my phone conversation with their pediatrican.  My sister can be passed out on the kitchen floor and my parents will have to physically step over her to reach the sink or fridge and they insist everything is fine.  When talking with the children my mother refers to their home as the their Aunt's home.  Sickening.

    Sister deniel - Deer - Jul 5th 2011

    My sister over the past five years has slowely stop calling, talking, or emailing me. When at family gatherings she does not talk to me unless she needs to. Alchole runs in our family and she always bitched at everyone about it. Now the last five years, she is talking to those that she hated in our family years earlier. I have told my parents that she has been drinkgin and taking over the counter medication the past five years and is getting worse. No one beleived me. Now this past week she is in rehab, for her alcholisim abuse, along with co-dependency, depression, anxiety, and nerves. As well as her OCD. She has sicne been also diagnosed with being boarder-linw schizophrenia. My brohter was diagnosed as this years past in the early eighties.

    I can now understand and try to talk wiht her, knowing the situation and try to be understanding. It is so difficult, she oftern lies, thinks she is always right, and she is never wrong. She is very controling, and on edge 90% of the time. I can't be aroudn her, because then I get like that and I can't stand it. It really is frustrating, because no on knows where I am coming from, please someone tell me I am not alone on this one.

    My sisters are in denial when I speak bad about dad's actions - - Jun 9th 2010

    I have two older sisters, they get upset with me when I talk about how our dad abused us and how he was an asshole to us as children and how he still can be an obnoxious jerk to this day. They both don’t consider it “abuse”. They brush it off and say things like, “it wasn’t that bad”, even the sister that he punched in the stomach and beat with a belt when she was 10 years old says she had a wonderful childhood. And that’s great that pretending nothing happened works for her. But for me, I still hold a lot of resentment which I know I need to work on, but every time I bring up how my dad was rude to me (then & now), they get mad at me and say I am “shitting on him” or “it’s not that bad” or “that’s not how it happened”. They either discredit what I am saying or say I am lying. I am not shitting on my father, I am just bringing up how rude he was! Why my sister’s are unable to validate my feelings or relate to me is beyond me (because I know they been there before). I am not even asking for them to stick up for me, hell they don’t even have to agree with me. All I want is to be heard, understood and not told I am lying. I just want them to BE SISTERS & lend an ear. And on top of all this they make me out to be the bad guy cuz I brought anything negative up in the first place. But because it is my father, they don’t want to hear it. What is your opinion on this?

    severe denial. - - Mar 13th 2010

    My boyfriends mother is in absolute denial about her husbands impending death. Every treatment he has been given simply is a bandaid to soothe the secondary infections from fast matesizing cancer. Yet she thinks with every treatment, he will recover and come home. She has failed her son in getting necessary paperwork done, and they (parents) are going to lose thier home to pay for cancer/hospice care. They are going to and have begun draining all lifesavings, insurance, and are facing total bankruptcy. Still this nuerotic bitch seems to think her husband will 'recover'. She sits next to him, prodding him to stay awake, while dosed on pain meds. The husband has told the doctors to leave me be, make me comfortable. The wife has ignored his wishes, and because she has healthcare proxy rights, continues to force him to recieve treatments he does not want.

    She was psych evaled when she had a eschemic (sp) event, basically a small stroke that lasted 23 hours. The doctors said she is in denial and will not accept the death of her husband. How is this woman maintaining health proxy powers?

    My boyfriend is going thru hell, and she is unfazed. Her husband fell on the floor trying to get to the bathroom, as she refuses to allow him to be catheterized.

    I wish it would end.

    Sick of Denial and Addiction Killing Our Family - OrganicTexan - Jan 6th 2010

    Denial runs very, very deep in some families. My 28 year old sister is an alcoholic/addict and is suspected of having Borderline Personality Disorder. In the last year her behavior has become progressively worse with: calling off a big wedding, lying and saying fiancé cheated on her & punched her in the eye, using cosmetics to make a fake black eye, photographing it and sending to everyone via email; keeping all shower/wedding gifts; telling ex-fiancé she was capable of murder; hooking up with a heroin addict that she left the ex-fiancé for; doctor shopping for Xanax; getting several VERY large tattoos on her arms; two physical altercations with heroin addict boyfriend with police being called; 2nd DWI in April 2009 (first DWI March 2006); shooting an illegally modified shotgun and knocking her front teeth out; had three seizures from Xanax withdrawal July 2009; getting pregnant in hopes that our family would accept her heroin addict boyfriend; spending $2k to fly to Las Vegas with heroin addict boyfriend to get married; moving heroin addict husband into my parents home (where my 10 year old niece also lives whom my parents have raised since birth) because heroin addict husband was kicked out of his parents home for shooting up heroin. His parents are raising his two children from a previous marriage. My sister has been receiving child support for 8 years and has never given my parents a dime. My parents are CLASSIC ENABLERS, they don't come any worse.  My dad grew up with an alcoholic father and my mother was sexually molested by her grandfather.

    My other sister and I have gone so far as to spend $2k to hire an interventionist for my parents, yet it didn't work. As of December 15, 2009 my sister is wearing a SCRAM ankle device and taking weekly drug testing due to her 2nd DWI and so my parents think "all is well." They don't want to see there are ways of passing sophisticated urine testing and SCRAM devices. They don't want to see that once her baby is born in April, she will go back to using, that is, if she isn't currently using. I saw her at Thanksgiving and at 5 months pregnant she was thin and the whites of her eyes were very yellow. She will end up killing herself or someone on the roadway, but you can't convince my parents of that. It can't happen to their daughter because she always tells them the truth, at least she's brainwashed and manipulated them to believe her lies. In addition, they allow her to drive a vehicle with my niece as a passenger, knowing she's already had several seizures and could have another one at any time. They are the ONLY thing that stands between my sister and treatment. She lives in their home and yet, they won't tell her to go to treatment or move out.  My 10 year old niece even acknowledges that her mom is an alcoholic, yet my parents will not.  Sad, isn't it?

    in 1963 i was raped at 6 years old by my uncle - - Nov 28th 2009

    my mom said not to talk about it.  she told the doctor and they sent me out of the room.  i even tried to talk about it a couple of times.  then my anger was channeled into rage against my next sister.  (i was the oldest).

    that was the secret i had to keep.  but now we have a third sister who is bleeding my dad dry and all she can do is wail and complain about her standard of living after getting a divorce.  she's a school psychologist and quit her job.  i hate her.  she frightens me with her psychological tricks.  it's torture for my mental health.

    Conspiracy of Denial - Mary - Jul 20th 2008

    If I had to explain denial to an alien who just landed in his spaceship, I would tell him that it was like a membrane around all the members of the family, and any attempt to puncture it is futile. The members inside the membrane have their own language, rituals, signs, and beliefs which they keep secret from everyone else. They move amongst others on the outside, but cannot communicate with them on any meaningful level. This is due to the fact that they cannot communicate with each other on any meaningful level. One of the cardinal rules amongst the family members is to PRETEND that everything is alright.

    The lives of the members of my sister's family revolve around her husband's alcoholism. Early on in her marriage she protested, but when she understood that it was "off limits", nothing more was done. Over the years, as the husband and father became more and more successful (very high functioning alcoholic), his drinking became the norm for the family, and they all drank daily, and all their friends drank whenever they stopped by. It was considered sophisticated and hip. He refused to drink beer because his father had died of alcoholism and was a beer drinker. He only drank the very best, and even owned vineyards in South Africa that produced expensive wine. Over the years, his health deteriorated, but it was blamed on his diabetes. All of his friends and business associates believed that diabetes was the culprit also. It became a loveless marriage where they didnt touch and verbal abuse by my sister became justified. This abuse by my sister ecame directed at anyone in the family, and eventually made her hated by her children and other members of her family. The husband meanwhile was looked on as the victim. Well, as they do, his daughter married an alcoholic, who only worked sporadically, and thus were financially dependent on her father. The other daughter was gay and regularly quit jobs if she sensed discrimination of any kind, and also had to depend on dad's money. With my sister becoming more and more disillusioned, but still refusing to accept reality, she became bitter and authoritative, and poured verbal abuse on her daughters, husband, me, brother, and her own parents. I found out last week that the husband has wet brain which is irreversible. I had to detach so do not know if he has continued drinking, but I would be amazed if he stopped. It makes me extremely sad and lonely, but I have remained sober for 12 yrs.

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