The old pun, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt”, is a clever play on words referring to the process of denial as something big, and not a reference to da-Nile river. There is debate about the origin of the phrase, with some crediting Mark Twain, although where and when he might have said this is yet to be established as far as I know, so it’s likely not true.
At first glance denial might seem like an immature behavior, like pretending something isn’t a problem when it clearly is and others seem to see it for what it is. In a closer look, consider how psychology defines denial as a defense mechanism to avoid painful realizations. This inability to take in the reality of what is happening is actually an unconscious mechanism to protect the individual from painful or uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Typically, the stronger the denial, the more is at stake emotionally for the person.
Denial Serves to Protect Us From Pain
Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter, developed the concept of defense mechanisms as unconscious strategies to ward off painful thoughts and feelings. We all have relied on denial at different times to get through emotionally difficult experiences. Oftentimes, when people are ready, the denial melts, and steps are taken to push through the thing the person was unable to deal with previously.
What happens when a partner is in denial and that denial is a source of pain for the other partner? Understandably, that person’s denial becomes a source of pain which may very easily lead to a lot of other feelings like resentment, anger, frustration, fear, and hopelessness, to name just a few.
The partner could be in denial about substance issues, health issues, relationship issues, and countless other possibilities, which tends to leave the partner not in denial ultimately feeling alone with all those feelings.
Things to Consider Initially
- Consider finding support from trustworthy friends and family members to help not feel so isolated. Depending on the nature and severity of the issue, it may be important to consider support groups, and/or therapy.
- Don’t try to force the issue with your partner, this tends to harden the denial.
- Keep in mind that your partner’s denial is likely to be about avoiding something that is painful, and that avoidance is probably not a conscious rejection of you and your thoughts and feelings, rather, it’s an unconscious defense that is serving a psychological purpose of protection.
Beyond Initially: How You Address Concerns Makes a Difference
There are specific tools and guidelines that can increase the likelihood of successfully helping partners get past their denial. You can be a partner and not a therapist, but use tools often found in the counseling room by therapists.
In the next blog, Part 2 of this series, I will share what I have learned helps and have coached partners and therapists to use to break the stuck place found in denial. While it is about timing, it is also about how you approach concerns for your loved one.