These 5 (Very Human) Defense Mechanisms Can Erode Any Relationship

Kelsey Clark
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Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Whether you're a Freud believer or not, the idea that we as humans tend to push difficult emotions aside in order to avoid dealing with them isn't a crazy one. Whether you have yet to cope with the death of a loved one or are still coming to terms with your own flaws, we attempt to protect ourselves by sweeping our vulnerabilities under the rug. And as Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, points out in Psychology Today, close relationships and the vulnerability they require are prime territory for these so-called defense mechanisms to flourish.

"As it turns out, some of the most common defense mechanisms may make you even more anxious by getting in the way of your relationship happiness," writes Whitbourne, who is a professor of psychology and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She references a new paper by Wei Zhang and Ben-yu Guo of China's Nanjing Normal University, which has developed a more nuanced view of defense mechanisms in our modern world. Here are the five most common defense mechanism (and how they can affect your close relationships):

1. Projection: "Do you blame your partner for the flaws you experience in yourself? Perhaps you're a bit forgetful and messy. Rather than admit it, do you accuse your partner of failing to be thoughtful and neat?"

2. Denial: "Do you try to protect your self-representation by pretending that negative experiences haven't occurred? Do you close your eyes and think that everything is going to be just fine, even when your partner seems upset with you?" 

3. Compensation: "Do you turn to alcohol or drugs instead of confronting your own negative emotions? Is it easier to have an extra glass of wine or beer rather than talk to your partner about what's bothering you?"

4. Daydreaming: "How much do you fantasize that all of your problems and challenges will simply disappear? Would you rather escape into your own world where everything is perfect rather than step into the real and flawed life that you and your partner share?"

5. Grandiosity: "Do you see yourself as more important than your partner? Do you constantly expect to be admired while at the same time not acknowledging your partner's accomplishments? Is it hard for you to give credit when your partner is right?"

Share your thoughts on these defense mechanisms below, and pick up a copy of Whitbourne's book, The Search for Fulfillment, for more.

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