Defense Mechanisms That Affect Relationships

by Lynne Namka, Ed.D.
Psychologist and Author

Sigmund Freud said, "The ego expels whatever within itself becomes a source of displeasure." A defense mechanism is a habitual behavior that distorts reality to suppress thoughts and emotions that might bring up ego threat. Defense mechanisms function in life to help us deal with stress. However the defenses keep people from being real and living life to the fullest.

Repression is a defense mechanism first described by Sigmund Freud, as a way that people keep unpleasant memories out of their conscious mind. Repression is a compensatory style that deals with threat and stress by blocking unpleasant emotional experiences that might bring up anxiety, distress and vulnerability. Being split off from feelings is called alexithymia. Repressors have a chronic inaccessible filter that keeps them from experiencing the world through their emotions. They feel attacked and then distance and isolate from others when they are stressed. They avoid talking about and rehashing unpleasant experiences as this adds to their stress. They become inaccessible to others when they feel the problem has been solved by their solution of dismissing it. They are conflict avoidant and cannot tolerate working things out to the satisfaction of their partner. They often deny that there is a problem and have a lack of insight about how their distancing bothers others.

Repressors have one emotion--from A to A. They can feel and express anger. Anger is a substitute emotion for the hurt and disappointment they might feel. Anger takes them out of the emotional flat line and becomes their dominant emotion. They are stressed by having to deal with others on an emotional level and change the subject or evade the issue to keep people who are upset from bothering them. They tend to be more aggressive and have a higher belief in themselves than most people. On the positive side, Repressors are often less neurotic than those who express their feelings easier. They can see events objectively without emotions clouding up the issue.

Repressors remember fewer negative experiences from childhood. By minimizing the unhappy events, they distort reality and can even believe they had a happy childhood when they did not. The research literature suggest that they protect themselves from discomfort by superficially taking in negative events. They spend less time processing unpleasant new events and have the ability to dismiss them. This defense allows them to experience unpleasant emotions less frequently than emotionally intense people.

They do not form associations between negative experiences and internal arousal such as anxiety. They need repeated trials to link a negative experience with negative emotions. The assumption in the research literature is that repressors have a lack of emotional links in the brain which tie negative emotions to experiences.

People who repress their feelings view themselves as "thinkers" and proudly use their intellect to process information. Talking and problem solving take preference over feelings. They can be highly analytical like Mr. Spock of the Starship Enterprise. They often intellectualize which is trying to explain emotionally painful feelings through thought. Sometimes they feel superior over people who are more emotional and dismiss this style of dealing with stress. Often they put people down who are emotional. They just don't "get" feelings and talking things out!

Since they do not process their own emotions, they don't have a clue when it come to understanding emotions in others. They do the worst with partners who are highly emotional and insist on sharing feelings and who try to make the Repressor responsible for their anxiety that remains when there is no clear cut solution to the problem. They do best in relationships with a partner who leaves them alone and who does not insist on their engaging in continual emotional discussion. They do best of all with a partner who does not need closure on problems and has the ability to sweep conflict under the rug, however that rarely happens as they more likely to choose partners who are in touch with their feelings.

Opposites do attract! Remember each style is just a defense mechanism to deal with stress. Emotional pursuers and emotional distancers are drawn to each other and thus the great comedy of life begins!

People often see their own attitudes and behavior as "normal" and overestimate the worst in others. They see others as bad while excusing the same traits in themselves. They often assume a "False Consensus Effect" - that others perceive things the way they do. We all have a bit of projection in us, but some people have the need to blame others big time, thus obstructing their own growth and learning.

Projection is a common defense mechanism where a person gets upset with a trait in someone else that he wishes to deny in himself. They suppress the knowledge that they have the same trait and externalize blame on the other person. They are highly sensitized to the unwanted behaviors in others and transfer their horror and anger at their own unwanted inner trait to an outside person. Much of their internal thought or words during an argument is focused on blaming the other person.

People who project blame often feel a hidden stigma and shame at possessing a disgraceful personality trait so they "project"or transfer anger on others to distract themselves from knowing the truth about their own self. They become so highly sensitized to the presence of their unwanted traits that it interferes with their social informational processing. So they don't see reality as it is and then operate out of their misperceptions. How do you know if you are projecting your anger on others? Preoccupation and judgments about others' behavior is projection. If you spot it, you got it!

Another form of projection is to transfer the arrows and slings of life onto "bad luck" or "fate." People who project often have other defenses such as Overgeneralized Thinking, which is the habit of making statements that emphasize that things are always that way. Examples of this type of thinking are: "He never considers my opinion. You always put me down. She always tells me what to do. I have to do all the work. I never get a break. Why can't you ever get it right? and "I can't stand it. I can't take anymore." Overgeneralization language uses words like "never, always, should and everybody or nobody."

People who blame others frequently have a habit of Focusing on Right And Wrong and Dwelling on Perceived Injustice. They often say "It's not fair!" and dwell on the negative. Keeping score of slights from others and dwelling on them creates a climate of hurt and suspicion. Having a list of "shoulds" for the partner which are inconsistent with his or her personality will undermine a relationship. Focusing on unfairness keeps them caught in anger, resentment and grudges. (Hey, life frequently is unfair, but focusing on it only makes you more miserable!)

People who blame others or situations without taking responsibility for their contribution to the problem never get the sense of satisfaction of growth. By refusing to see their own errors, they lose the opportunity to change the very aspects of themselves that keep them stuck.

The Narcissistic Stance - "I Want To Feel No Way But Good"

Narcissism, according to Freudian theory, is an irrational belief that the person they choose for a partner will give them perfect love and make up for all the hurts and slights of their life. People with narcissistic thinking and behavior strive to defend their fragile self esteem through fantasy and have a huge blind spot in their way of thinking. Fantasy and unrealistic expectations take the place of life. People with narcissistic tendencies have other defenses and errors in thinking such as denial, repression of feelings, black and white thinking and externalization of blame. They are often rigid and have a strong need to be right. They feel an increase in self esteem when they get what they want and feel no remorse at using others. They are supersensitive to criticism and either attack the other person or they leave the scene. They can pout and give the silent treatment or hold grudges. This combination of these defenses which distort reality often set them up for failure in partnerships.

Now we all have a bit of narcissism and indeed need some of it to survive. Otherwise we would end up giving away everything. Getting a good balance between taking from others and giving to them is called "Healthy Narcissism."

People with severe narcissistic traits long for ideal love that will take care of their fragile sense of self and give them unconditional love. The yearning for getting unconditional love is a unresolved need left over from childhood. Most adults realize unconditional love would be nice. It rarely happens as people we love usually hold us accountable for our actions in some way. People with narcissistic traits distort their self image (again in fantasy to believe that they are superior to others). They think too well of themselves as a defense to cover up their sense of shame deep within. Grandiosity is a distortion which prevents them from blaming themselves and becoming depressed or disintegrated.

The two greatest fears we humans have in relationships are fears of engulfment (smothering, being controlled by someone else) and fears of rejection and abandonment. And to spice up the human drama, our greatest longings are the needs for connection and the opposite need for space and individuality. What a set up for problems! And so the couple dance is set playing out these great, universal themes. People with narcissistic traits play both these fears out in the relationships with their significant others, yearning for closeness and fearing it the same time.

In the narcissistic mind, there is a gap between the idealized love and the actual day-to-day dealings with their partner. They long for symbiosis with the idealized love to stabilize the self, but they fear being traumatized by the partner. They seek refuge in being seen as the good guy and try to gain approval and recognition. When this does not come forth readily, they feel wounded, hurt and attacked. Constantly seeking attention and approval puts them in the precarious position of always needing something from somebody else.

As they believe that they are right and others are wrong, they rarely admit to faults in themself. They are not interested in reading self help books and pooh-pooh feelings. They do not want to come to therapy and often have the myth of "I can do it all by myself" while it is apparent to others that they cannot.

Fantasy is an attempt to process information, emotions and unresolved pain to make up for what they did not have in childhood. They place unrealistic demands on others to make them feel better. J. S. Bernstein defined this defense as a person's "Learning to feel no way but good and to demand success when he did not feel good." They cannot tolerate negative emotional distress and turn it on others (project) by saying they are bad. They insist on having things their own way which is an unreal attitude that sets others off against them. When they don't get what they want, they feel devalued. Since they cannot tolerate the feelings of fear, hurt, anxiety, helplessness and despair, they defend against them. They deny and rationalize their own contribution to the problems to preserve their own internal fantasy of being all good and right.They also suffer from the Repressor and Projection defenses described above. Narcissistic people always are Repressors, but not all Repressors are Narcissistic.

Narcissists have a lack of insight about understanding and processing of feelings. Instead, they deny their feelings and run from them. They avoid taking risks to love and never learn to develop true intimacy. They would rather threaten their relationship than face humiliation, embarrassment or injury to their self esteem. They are slow to learn the all important skills of commitment such as sympathy, understanding the intentions and motives of their partner, compassion and empathy. They may even choose someone to love who is even more narcissistic and selfish than themselves thus mirroring their own problems.

True intimacy and a lasting partnership require the skills of dealing with conflict. After the euphoria of a new relationship wears off, each partner's values and belief systems begin to rub against each other. At this point negotiating conflict is necessary for the relationship to continue effectively. Narcissistics often discount the issues in the relationship and pull away from their partner. The narcissistic defenses of becoming angry, shutting down, minimizing and distancing keep them feeling safe in the moment. But the partner becomes highly threatened and angry thus weakening the relationship.

The antidote to narcissistic behavior is to understand how the defenses work, identify and correct the errors in thinking and learn to tolerate frustration, anxiety, sadness and shame. By learning to be straight first with the self, and then with others, these unhealthy defense can be lessened. Then the person can learn to live in the world of reality even though it hurts at times instead of turning to a fantasy which can never be gained. For more understanding on this topic, read Narcissism and Intimacy: Love and Marriage in an Age of Confusion by Marion Solomon.

With hard work, people with narcissistic defenses can learn conflict negotiation and appropriate, safe anger expression. Education, self searching and therapy is needed to resolve these defense mechanisms which interfere with the ability to be happy. As they can learn to become more real with their feelings, they will gain self esteem by stretching and growing, even if it means being vulnerable to uncomfortable emotional states. As these skills are learned, they can achieve more satisfying and balanced relationships with others.

Lynne Namka is a happy psychologist based in Tucson, AZ, and the author of many books to help people live satisfying lives. Her latest book is on conscious aging for older women called A Gathering of Grandmothers: Words of Wisdom from Women of Spirit and Power which is available at and Email her at or call 520-825-4766. Visit her website at

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