Let’s start with what a defense mechanism is…
A defense mechanism describes a way your mind attempts to protect you from anxiety, guilt, shame, the fear of all three of those things, and/or any otherwise unwanted psychological thoughts or experiences.
It’s important to keep in mind that defense mechanisms are largely “unconscious.” This means you are not typically aware that you are using them. Sometimes you aren’t even aware of the psychological distress that is motivating you to use them in the first place.
Psychiatrists and psychologists classify defense mechanisms in several ways. Below I share some of those categories with you. Separately, I share with you a list of many defense mechanisms and how they can show up in your romantic relationships.
Four Common Categories of Defense Mechanisms
Mature Defense Mechanisms
These are considered healthier, more functional ways of dealing with psychological distress. When these are used, it generally means that the person has a fairly conscious grasp on what is realistically going on around them. Mature defenses are considered a helpful way of dealing with uncomfortable thoughts. They are most socially acceptable and often considered constructive ways of dealing with pain and suffering.
Neurotic Defense Mechanisms
These are considered less functional than mature mechanisms. Neurotic defenses describe ways people manage ongoing, consistent, pervasive psychological stress. Often, they help in the short-term, but lead to long-term problems above and beyond the original anxiety.
Immature Defense Mechanisms
These are less healthy and less functional than mature and neurotic defenses. They tend to be more present in adults than children. Immature defenses pose significant threats to people’s most important relationships. These are usually present in a number of significant mental health diagnoses, including disorders of the personality. However, they are quite commonly used.
Pathological Defense Mechanisms
Just as the name suggests, these defense mechanisms suggest severe mental dysfunction. Pathological defense mechanisms involve a distortion of reality to the degree that it can’t or doesn’t make sense to other people. Interpersonal relationships are extremely difficult to manage and overall functioning in the world is severely compromised.
30 Defense Mechanisms, Their Meanings, & How They Show Up in Romantic Relationships
Please note: I’m purposefully not categorizing the defense mechanisms the way theory does.
One, because I’m not sure I agree with them all.
Two, because some can fit into multiple categories at the same time.
Three, because I believe in empowering you to uniquely decide for yourself where you think something fits.
And four, because things change. What feels like it may fit in one category today, may fit into another category next month.
If you choose to read on, please keep in mind these Very Important Points:
- This list below is fairly comprehensive of the defense mechanisms themselves.
- The definitions are purposefully and overly simplified to make it easier to understand.
- In order for it to qualify as a true defense mechanism, the examples should be considered behaviors that happen consistently or chronically; not just once in a while.
- Many of these examples are things that simply “just happen” in relationships and are not otherwise considered as possible defense mechanisms. In fact, some of them are actually helpful in relationships.
- None of the examples are explanations for what is going on for you or your partner. They are possibilities. There can be and often are other explanations for why these examples occur.
- REMEMBER, defense mechanisms mostly operate unconsciously, which means outside of our awareness. You won’t read these and necessarily think, “I do that.” Nor does it mean that your partner does any of this “on purpose.” I can’t stress this point enough.
Now that you’re ready, here they are, in alphabetical order:
1. Acting Out
intense behaviors or expressions, with no filter or regard for how it makes other people feel, due to an inability to express oneself in a healthier way
- Yelling at your partner alone or in front of other people (e.g. family, friends, or in any social setting)
- Threatening or hurting your partner (physically, psychologically, economically, etc.)
- Interrupting your partner and refusing to listen to what they have to say
Engaging in constructive behaviors that seem to help, provide some sort of positive offering, and aim to please or satisfy as a means to offset ways the altruistic partner is unsatisfied
- Being very sexually attentive to the degree that your partner isn’t
- Engaging in many acts of service in hopes that your partner will become more aware of offering them to you
- Being overly nice to your partner
Predicting that something negative will happen and rehearsing how you will respond to it if it does
- Imagining what you will say to your partner if you find out they are cheating on you
- Rehearsing what you will do if your partner forgets to do something that they said they would do
- Practicing how you will behave toward your partner should they disappoint you by not remembering your birthday, anniversary, etc.
Saying, acting, or believing as if something didn’t happen that actually did happen, or isn’t true that could be true, even when it is pointed out to you
- Not realizing that you have feelings for someone who is not your partner, who is maybe a friend or a co-worker
- Being unaware that you have unresolved feelings with/for a former partner or ex-spouse
- Telling your partner that “they’re crazy” when they’re saying or noticing something that could very seriously could be true (i.e. gaslighting them)
Having feelings toward a certain person or thing (or yourself) and manifesting those feelings in a way that is not aligned with the original experience
- Struggling with mature, adult intimacy and thus putting more affection toward your pet than your partner
- Having a difficult time at work or with your career and instead picking fights with your partner over something unrelated
- Watching violent television shows as a way to manifest anger or intense feelings you have toward your partner
A kind of disconnection from what is immediately or distally going on around you
- Needing drugs, alcohol, or certain foods to be able to be present in an experience with your partner
- Being on your phone, playing video games, or engaging in social media, ultimately disconnecting you from your partner
- Daydreaming about ideas and situations (real or imagined) that are not rooted in the present reality of your life
Believing that something is true, that you really want to be true – when it isn’t
- Thinking that someone has feelings for you who doesn’t
- Believing that your partner is faithful to you in the face of clear evidence that they are cheating
- Thinking that relationships are and “should be” easy
8. Downward Social Comparison
Looking down on other people “like you” who you think are doing worse and/or are not as good as you, in order to feel better about yourself
- Judging the difficulty you know about other people’s relationships to make you feel better about yours
- Thinking that you and your partner have a better relationship because you have more money, travel, do/don’t have children, have famous friends, or are yourselves – famous
- Believing that you and your partner are better than others because you look more “mainstream attractive”
Escaping reality and settling into grand ideas that exist mostly in one’s mind
- Having an emotional and/or sexual affair
- Imagining that you are having an emotional and/or sexual affair
- Extraordinary ideas about an unlikely future with your partner (e.g. living in lavish luxury as if it would make everything in life feel good)
Finding the humor in otherwise difficult, sad, or uncomfortable situations
- Making fun of your partner in front of other people to boost your own ego
- Making jokes as a way to evade serious conversations and hard topics
- Engaging in behavior that you find funny, but your partner does not, as a way to put distance between the two of you
When someone worries excessively or has a preoccupation with having a specific illness without any evidence that they do in fact have that illness
- Not being able to engage in social activities together if the person believes their condition could be made worse by other exposure to other people
- Not being able to deepen intimacy and connection due to your preoccupation with illness
- Obsessing about the illness so much that you don’t have other things to talk about with your partner
Overemphasizing the positive characteristics of a person, place, or thing to the total exclusion of the negative characteristics
- Imagining that the relationship would be perfect “if only” xyz was true
- Hyperfocusing on the parts of your partner you like and ignoring what you don’t (usually happens in the beginning)
- Imagining that another person would meet all of your needs better than your partner; that someone else would be a perfect match
Processing emotions only through intellectual ideas and concepts; cutting off the emotional relationship to the challenges or triumphs of the circumstances of your life
- Having a hard time expressing being happy for your partner when they have accomplished something without also explaining the mechanics for how they accomplished it
- Having a hard time expressing sadness when your relationship is going through a difficult time without identifying what is causing the hard time
- Needing to find a rational explanation for why something is or is not occurring in a relationship versus identifying and sharing how you feel about it
Taking on ideas, experiences, or interests outside of oneself as belonging to oneself
- Dressing or behaving in a certain way because you know that’s what your partner likes, even if that is not authentically aligned with who you are
- Engaging in hobbies or activities that your partner likes, even if you don’t
- Being interested in certain fields of study because you think your partner will find you more interesting if you are
15. Isolation of Affect
Being unable to identify with the emotional experience of a person, place, or thing that would otherwise carry significant emotions
- Not having an outward emotional connection if your partner tells you they are upset with you, or more seriously – considering ending the relationship
- Appearing dead-panned or flat in emotionally connective circumstances (e.g. a blank or lifeless look on your face during sexual intimacy)
- Not showing any concern over an illness that you or your partner have been diagnosed with
16. Passive Aggression
Inhibited expression of anger or other frustrated-type emotions that are channeled into more “socially unacceptable” or less obviously aggressive behaviors
- Poking fun at your partner with the use of sarcasm regarding things about them that really bother you
- Walking through the house with muddy shoes when your partner has spent the day cleaning
- Turning the heat up in the house when you know your partner is already hot
Taking a thought, feeling, or behavior you are having and attributing it to someone else
- Accusing your partner of being angry when you are the one who is angry
- Being afraid that your partner might cheat on you when you are or have cheated on them (or on someone else) in the past
- Thinking that your partner is lying to you when you are lying to them (or have in the past)
18. Projective Identification
When you project something onto someone else that belongs to you, not them, and they introject it and start to become (or manifest) the projection
- Accusing your partner of not listening to you because they don’t respond in the way you want to hear, and over time – they think they are a bad listener and they do stop listening to you
- Accusing your partner of having unresolved anger (because you do), and over time – they begin internalizing what you are saying and acting more angry and aggressive
- Accusing your partner of not working hard enough at taking better care of themselves and over time – they stop taking care of themselves
Explaining circumstances, events, and/or feelings in ways that make valid sense to avoid the real or true reason why something has occurred or is occurring
- Your partner declines to go to your family’s house with you on account of work they have to get done (when they really don’t want to go to your family’s house with you)
- Your partner tells you that they aren’t feeling angry or upset and that they’re “just tired” when they actually are tired because of how angry and upset they’ve been
- When your partner says “it is what it is” about an issue that’s hard and has no clear solution but they don’t really want to talk about it
20. Reaction Formation
When a person thinks, feels, or behaves the opposite of how they truly think, feel, or want to behave
- When your partner overly compliments something you are wearing because they feel guilty about how much they don’t like it
- When your partner is exceptionally nice to your family of origin even though, deep down, they don’t like them
- When your partner expresses strong negative feelings about a person outside of your relationship to combat strong feelings of actual like for the person to the degree that it may threaten the security of your relationship
Acting out feelings and behaviors typically associated with a much younger age of the developmental life cycle
- Stomping feet, slamming doors, and telling your partner you’re leaving during a fight
- Exaggerating details of a situation to make it seem more dramatic than it really is
- Making empty threats with no intention of following through
Blocking certain thoughts and feelings from your mind because of how unacceptable they feel to you
- Being unaware that you are not being open about you want sexually as a result of feeling that it is shameful or unacceptable
- Being unaware of important feelings you have because early in life you were punished are made to believe they were unacceptable
- Not identifying with feelings of loss if you were abandoned by one or both parents and thus keeping a safe emotional distance from your partner
The literal experience of a physical ailment resulting from a psychological conflict
- Not wanting to get pregnant and subsequently developing pain that inhibits sexual intercourse altogether
- Being confused about your sexual orientation and subsequently developing physical symptoms that decrease or eliminate your desire for sexual activity
- Being frustrated that your partner doesn’t help you around the house and subsequently developing pain that interrupts your ability to complete your responsibilities, forcing your partner to have to do it
Believing that someone or something is all good or all bad and oscillating between the two; being unable to integrate that there are both good and bad parts of every thing, person, and relationship
- Feeling like your partner is perfect for you and later feeling like they are the worst partner for you
- Believing that your partner’s behavior is caring and protective and later thinking that the same behavior is malicious and will hurt you
- Thinking that your partner is “always” or “never” doing or not doing something vital to the health of the relationship
Transforming negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors into positive ones
- Noticing that you feel really attracted to someone who isn’t your partner and going home and having sex with your partner to offset the attraction to someone else
- Convincing yourself that the relationship you have is better for you than you realize because you are afraid of breaking up
- Feeling really angry with your partner but instead of yelling at them, using that energy to engage in high-intensity exercise
One of the conscious defense mechanisms that involves purposefully pushing out certain thoughts, feelings, and experiences
- Blocking your ex on social media to avoid how you may feel if they either try to contact you or you see pictures of them
- Not going to certain restaurants or places you frequented in a former relationship to not confuse you and how you feel in your current relationship
- Purposefully not discussing your desired sexual behaviors with your partner because you don’t think that they will be open and/or may judge you
Trying to reverse something we have done or said as a way to manage the negative emotions that have come up as a result
- Engaging in on-again-off-again relationships; getting back together when the pain associated with the breakup feels intolerable and/or feeling like you could have done something better
- Having broken or damaged something that belongs to your partner and buying them a replacement item
- Being overly nice to your partner after you were very aggressive toward them
28. Upward Social Comparison
Looking up to other people “like you” who you think are doing better than you and consequently feeling bad about yourself
- Feeling sorry for yourself if another couple has gotten engaged or gotten pregnant when you and your partner have not
- Thinking that other couples are doing better than you because their social media accounts portray a relationship that “looks better”
- Criticizing your partner for ways that they aren’t aligning with those whom you imagine have more satisfying relationships
29. Wishful Thinking
Wishing that something is true that definitely isn’t, but continuing to wish for it to avoid the negative experience associated with it not being true
- Thinking that your relationship is going to happily last forever without realizing that it will involve a lot of hard work that won’t always feel happy
- Expecting your partner to be able to know everything you want and need in any given moment
- Thinking that a couple’s therapist will solve your relationship problems for you
Going inside of oneself or one’s own experience of a situation to the exclusion of interaction with others
- Not feeling confident about working through conflict with your partner and completely disengaging from the conversation
- Not talking or responding when your partner is speaking to you
- Spending a lot of time by yourself to reduce the chances of having to deeply connect
If you’re wondering whether or not any of these defense mechanisms are present for you or in your relationships, please consider reaching out to an individual or couple’s therapist who can help you explore them for yourself.
Remember, these definitions were severely edited to relay them in as easy to understand of a way as possible. The examples may or may not be indicative of an ongoing defense mechanism used by you or your partner. Many defense mechanisms are healthy and functional. The ultimate goal is to give you some information to help you better understand you and yourself in relationships; regardless of any labels.
Til next time,