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

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

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.

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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.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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