Refusing to See: Emotional Denial

· October 8, 2015

To build and be part of a couple is not easy. It is a complex puzzle filled with voids, fears, needs, desires and frustrations. However, it is also a constant adventure that is worth living at any age and at any time, because it nourishes us, builds us up, and makes us grow as individuals.

Of all the many things that strain relationships or cause couples to drift apart, the number one challenge is misunderstanding: “You just don’t understand me” or “You don’t see what is hurting me.”

Maybe it is true that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” Who knows! But, what often causes misunderstanding is a clear “emotional denial.” This is when a person knows that something is wrong but chooses, consciously or unconsciously, not to see it or recognize it. 

Emotional denial is a defense mechanism whereby people avoid acknowledging that there is a problem. And unfortunately, it’s a very common behavior in relationships.

The mask that hides the problem

Emotional denial can manifest in different ways. Here are some examples:


Case 1

We have a woman who, day after day, feels stifled by her unhappiness. Yet she refuses to recognize this. She lives with a partner, and they have been together for many years, but there are certain aspects that were trifles in the past that are now huge black holes. He is a sarcastic man who often ridicules her and puts her down, in public as well as in private. He phrases, but her self-esteem has decreased dramatically.

However, she tells herself that he is not trying to hurt her with his jokes, that he loves her, that it is just how he is; that it is not abuse. This is a type of emotional denial. She herself is justifying her partner’s behavior and denying the reality of her situation, her unhappiness, low self-esteem, and humiliation.

Case 2

In the second case we have a young woman who no longer feels as attracted to her partner as she did when they first started dating. She is no longer excited to be dating him, she never has any fun with him, and she does not find him interesting. However, she doesn’t dare say anything about this to him, and hopes instead that he will notice the change in her behavior toward him.

But what happens? Her partner knows very well that something is missing, that something is going wrong, but he prefers not to recognize it and pretends not to notice. He chooses emotional denial in order to avoid facing the problem.

As you can see, emotional denial, believing that “nothing’s wrong,” is a defense mechanism that is very commonly used in relationships. It is a clear example of insecurity and immaturity, and hides many personal fears.

what-hurts-me-but-you-cant-see-interior

How to confront emotional denial

Whether it’s us or our partner that engages in emotional denial, the result is a weakened relationship. How can we stop resorting to this frustratingly common defense mechanism?

Have these things in mind:

  1. Understand, first of all, that denial is a defense mechanism. That is to say, its purpose is to protect us, but in the long-term, it harms us.
  2. If your partner is the one using it, make him or her see that denying the truth will not make things disappear or magically get better. However, keep in mind that it will not be easy for your partner to admit that they use denial in the first place. You will be confronted with a lot of opposition.
  3. You need to use this confrontation to your advantage. When faced with denial, offer up some evidence. Don’t you see that when you act this way you are hurting me? Do you know that continuing in this way will push me away? Every action has a consequence, even more so in relationships, where there needs to be a balance of power and emotional investment. If one person is putting more into the relationship than the other, or one person always loses, the relationship will decay day after day.
  4. To cope with emotional denial, we must go through the same process as with loss. First comes misunderstanding, then rage or anger, but little by little we see the reality and face it with strength and bravery.

It’s worth a shot.