By now, many of you readers are familiar with stories several of the readers have shared about their experiences in some form of therapy or counseling with a character-impaired relationship partner. And perhaps you have also read some of the articles I’ve posted on the topic (see, for example: Character Disturbance, Neurosis, and Therapy, Character Disturbance: Getting the Right Kind of Help) and are familiar with the caveats I’ve suggested must be observed when traditional methods are used to assess and deal with character dysfunction. Some of you might also have read the various articles I’ve written on the rampant misuse – even by professionals – of certain psychological concepts, especially “defense mechanisms” and specifically the defense mechanism of denial. But recently I’ve received an absolute deluge of emails (and contacts through the contact feature of this blog) from folks who’ve experienced frustration and disappointment in their counseling experiences. Complaints range from the therapist being effectively impression-managed or “conned” by the disturbed character to even possibly blaming the victim in a covertly abusive situation. But one of the main complaints about therapy experiences seems to be related to misconceptions about the concept of denial. So, in the first of several articles that will once again address some of the typical pitfalls of traditional approaches, I thought I’d speak to the issue of denial, what it really is, what it looks like, and the problems that can be caused when it’s misinterpreted in therapeutic situations.
True denial is an unconscious action of the mind to defend a person against the experience of unbearable emotional pain. I give an archetypal example of it in my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance:
Let’s take the [case] of a woman who has been married to the same man for 40 years. She has just rushed him to the hospital because, while they were out in the yard working, he began having trouble speaking and looked in some distress. The doctors then tell her that he has suffered a stroke, is now virtually brain-dead, and will not recover. Yet, every day she is by his bedside, holding his hand and talking to him. The nurses tell her that he cannot hear, but she talks to him anyway. The doctors tell her he will not recover, but she only replies, “I know he’ll pull through, he’s such a strong man.” This woman is in a unique psychological state – the state of denial. She can hardly believe what has happened. Not long ago she was in the yard with her darling, enjoying one of their favorite activities. The day before, they were at a friend’s home for a get-together. He seemed the picture of happiness and health. He didn’t even seem that sick when she brought him to the hospital. Now – in a blink of an eye – they’re telling her he’s gone. This is far more emotional pain than she can bear just yet. She’s not ready to accept that her partner of 40 years won’t be coming home with her. She’s not quite ready to face a life without him. So, her unconscious mind has provided her with an effective (albeit most likely temporary) defense against the pain. Eventually, as she becomes better able to accept the distressing reality, her denial will break down. When it does, the pain it served to contain will gush forth and she will grieve.
Now it’s crucial to remember what it really looks like when true denial breaks down, especially when people of otherwise decent character have done something (especially to someone else they purportedly love) so reprehensible that they can’t bear the pain of acknowledging it for a time. When they do acknowledge it, however, what you should see is a person racked with the pain, grief, and sadness that they were once unconsciously defending against. You should see genuine remorse and contrition about what they now realize they have done. And they should be filled with a desperate desire to make amends (not just idle talk but a real, genuine motivation to take action) and do right by the person they hurt, work hard to merit forgiveness, and demonstrate a commitment never to behave in a similar manner again.
Recently I was called into consultation on a case where a serial cheater was in “relationship repair” therapy for over 18 months, and by the therapist’s account, was only recently, and just barely, “coming out of denial.” This philanderer had made the claim that he “turned to someone else in a time of weakness” because his wife had become “emotionally cold and distant.” And he’d claimed that he had “blocked out” the tremendous guilt he felt and was also truly “unaware” of the damage he was doing to his marriage (even though he had to concoct literally hundreds of elaborate stories to explain suspicious circumstances over the years, knowing full well the impact that would be felt if his affairs came to light). The therapist noted that she’d encountered similar circumstances “numerous times” in her career and thought his explanations plausible. When I asked her how that would square with the fact that he first cheated only 4 weeks into his marriage (which both parties admit was full of passion at the time) and his second affair began while he was still involved with his first cheating partner, she had no ready answer. Nor did she have much to say when I challenged her about why she might accept so many explanations at face value (which is okay when someone is not character disturbed) without first screening for whether the person she was dealing with was of impaired character, which would dramatically increase the likelihood that all the “plausible” explanations might really be nothing more than crafty lies and attempts at positive impression management and manipulation. But most importantly, she was at a total loss for words when we discussed the nature of denial and what you should witness when an otherwise decent person who’s done something horrible and out of character comes to their senses and denial breaks down. For this was a man, who instead of displaying anguish over what he had done and an eagerness to make amends was constantly berating his wife (in front of the therapist) with comments like: “Why can’t you just let go of this?” and “What do you want from me?; I’ve already said I was sorry a thousand times!; and, “You’re making starting over impossible.” And although she was blind to the fact, the therapist had become a co-conspirator in the vilification and continued victimization of the aggrieved party. The proof of that was this man’s use of 18 months of therapy not to “overcome denial” or take on the hard challenge of real change but to covertly jockey the family finances to his favor in advance of a possible quick exit and continue his most recent affair in a more stealth manner while appearing to be concerned about saving his marriage.
As I have said before, traditional frameworks can be not only ineffective but also frighteningly enabling sometimes when it comes to understanding and dealing with character dysfunction. That’s because the perspectives themselves often cause the true nature of circumstances to be misinterpreted. In the coming weeks, I’ll have more to say on such topics as what real guilt and contrition look like, what a sincere desire to change (as opposed to empty promises to appease) looks like, and several other issues that might assist a reader who’s sought help for their relationship problems to better assess the benefit they might be deriving from the process.