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My Partner Is In Denial: Part 2 – What To Do

In my last blog, My Partner Is In Denial: Part 1 The Problem, I address the impact of a partner’s denial, When we care about somebody who is in denial, and that denial has an impact on our own wellness feelings of isolation, anger, resentment, fear, and frustration typically follow. Initial steps should include a focus on self-care, letting go at least initially, of what to do about the partner. In this article, I suggest some strategies to consider in addressing your partner’s denial.

Getting support is an emotional lifebuoy

But first – a brief review from Part 1. Finding support for yourself does not depended on what your partner does or does not do. This falls under the category in the Serenity Prayer of “…changing things you can change”. While it may be difficult to step back from focusing on your partner, starting with self-care is the first step in managing any situation that feels out of control, frightening, or hopeless,

Getting support is an emotional lifebuoy that helps to increase the success of managing the next steps in addressing the situation.

It is difficult to get past one’s own pain to try to remember that it is the partner’s pain underneath the denial that is actually creating the denial.

What To Do: Step 1

How Am I Defining Denial?

How we define a problem sets the course for how we try to solve it. Always start with the question, “What is the story I tell myself in explaining this problem?” These stories become our reality, until we consider other possibilities.

When a partner is in denial the story may be defined as:

How we state the problem sets the course on how it’s managed
  • My partner is selfish
  • My partner does not care about me
  • If my partner loved me, then we would be dealing with this problem
  • Using negative other labels and attributions to explain the denial

The above mindset sets the stage for a course, or direction in the relationship probably characterized by anger, withdrawal, and increasing tension,


When a partner is in denial the story may be defined as:

  • I am in pain and my partner is in pain
  • There is a reason my partner is in denial
  • We need to address this issue, and it may take a while to get there
  • While I am not responsible to fix my partner or the problem, we both have a responsibility to address the issues that concern us

This frame of reference leads to an entirely different path and direction in the relationship, even though it may feel the same at first.

What To Do: Step 2

Start with Acknowledging Your Feelings – Don’t Describe Your Partner

Describe yourself, not partner

A pre-emptive repair is a powerful communication tool that anticipates a partner’s defensiveness. It is based on the concept of describing yourself and doing so without attacking your partner increasing the likelihood your partner won’t get defensive. Set up a time to talk, or look for an appropriate moment to raise your concern.

Here are two approaches in a pre-emptive repair that work well together back-to-back:

Double Bind Starter

The conversation starts with acknowledging the difficulty in expressing your concern, but that it is important enough to to raise the issue:

“I am feeling in a double-bind here. I want to tell you about something that is important to me, but I am also concerned you might feel defensive or see this negatively.

Reassuring About Motivation

Tell the partner why you are raising the issue, and that this is about you and your reactions to what you are perceiving, and asking for what you need.

“Please know that I am not criticizing you, I just need to express what is going on for me. I would appreciate it if you would hear me out before reacting or responding,”

Name the Issue, Your Feelings, Your Needs

Describe what you see, focus on behavior:

  • I notice an increase in drinking
  • I see that you are experiencing those physical symptoms of vertigo again
  • We have not connected in a long time and I feel us growing apart

Describe how you feel about what you see:

I am feeling___

  • anxious
  • concerned
  • frightened
  • lonely
  • frustrated

State what you hope for, what you would like to happen:

I would like to see if we could:

  • make agreements about drinking
  • address cannabis as an issue
  • follow up with that doctors appointment sooner than later
  • spend more time together
  • talk about starting couples therapy
  • create a date night and be consistent.

You Have Just Laid the Groundwork for Future Conversations

If nothing else, you have named the issue and your concern. This may not lead to a conversation in that very moment, but letting an important issue go underground is corrosive in a relationship. If the partner does nothing more than listen then something positive has happened. Even if the partner gets defensive despite your best efforts, you have still named the concern which sets the stage for future conversations. One conversation is not likely to change things, but naming the issues that are concerning is a necessary condition for a healthy relationship, even if solutions are not evident or take a while to get to.

What To Do: Step 3

Listen To Your Partner’s Reactions and Acknowledge Those Feelings

Create Space for the Partner’s Reactions

One tool that addiction counselors use to help process difficult conversations is called FLO. It stands for Feedback, Listen, and Options. This communication tool is a really useful approach for couples, and very consistent with the Gottman research-based approach in discovering what successful couples do to manage conflict or difficult issues.

After you share your perspective and concerns, ask your partner what the partner is thinking and feeling about what you said. In the FLO model, you gave feedback. Now listen to the response to that feedback. The goal is for you to stay out of defensiveness or any attempt to convince the partner you are right.

If it works out in the moment, or perhaps down the line in another conversation, explore if your partner is willing to consider options, and both of you talk out possibilities. It does not have to be a commitment to action, just a willingness to consider possible action steps in the future.

What To Do: Step 4

Consider It May Take Time To Break Through The Denial

Some Things Take Time
It May Take Time To Move Through Denial

For so many of the individuals and couples I have worked with over the years, I have learned that breaking through denial often takes place over time. If circumstances allow for it, a longer term picture helps to keep a perspective on how sometimes denial breaks down incrementally. There may need to be numerous check ins and updates on feelings, perspectives, and conversations to address concerns.

However, everyone’s situation is unique. and depending on your own situation and the history of the issue your partner is still in denial about, the above steps may not be appropriate. Other options to consider may include more direct interventions like, outside support; therapy; consultations from professionals on more immediate next steps, etc. Depending on the urgency you think is driving your concerns, there are other options to consider.

If the denial stays in a stuck position, despite all of your earnest efforts, then “Accept the things you cannot change”. This leads you back to self-care as a primary focus. This sentiment is well stated in a Navajo proverb: “You can not wake a person that is pretending to be asleep.” While a person in denial is not pretending, that person is not yet ready to wake to the reality. However, one really never knows when that person might truly wake and knowing the difference between what you can change and cannot change is a healthy awareness and acknowledgment of our own limitations in that person waking.

Dr. Robert Navarra

Robert Navarra, PsyD, LMFT, MAC, is a Master Certified Gottman Therapist, Trainer, and Speaker, and an author. He is is certified as Master Addiction Counselor and specializes in treating and researching couples in recovery from addictive disorders. Dr. Navarra created "Roadmap for the Journey: A Workshop for Couples Embracing Recovery" and "Couples and Addiction Recovery: A Gottman Approach for Therapists, Counselors, and Addiction Professionals".

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