Defence mechanisms are our go-to behaviours that come out whenever we feel threatened. The threat could be as simple as a disagreement with a partner or a full-brown crisis affecting multiple aspects of our life. You might already be familiar with some of the popular defence mechanisms – passive aggression, suppression, denial, rationalization, intellectualization and the likes.
Imagine what would happen if both people in a relationship have denial as their go-to defence mechanisms? Any conflicts or problems they face will never get resolved even if they are facing the consequences of their problems all the time. Similarly, rationalization and fantasy would only reinforce the negatives of each other’s defence mechanisms, making it harder for the people involved to resolve their problems in healthy and lasting ways.
When two people have compatible defence mechanisms, they improve each other’s ability to deal with conflicts and troubles. Like suppression and intellectualization, for example. When the ‘suppressor’ starts ignoring the presence of a problem, the ‘intellectualizer’ might help them understand it better by virtue of their tendency to analyse problems obsessively. Similarly, when the intellectualizer is getting caught in overthinking traps, the suppressor might push them to let it go since they’d rather not confront the problem head-on. In this example, each person was kinda soothing the ill-effects of the other person’s go-to defence mechanism.
Usually, we have 3 – 5 dominant defence mechanisms we repeatedly fall back on. While it is hard to add new ones, it is relatively easier to train ourselves to switch the relative frequency with which we use each of our already existing defence mechanisms. Understanding each other’s dominant defence mechanisms helps us identify if there are any compatible combinations among them.
To get you started, here are some common defence mechanisms we tend to use:
- Denial: refusing to accept the truth/reality.
- Suppression: voluntarily trying to forget an unpleasant experience or thought.
- Repression: involuntarily pushing an experience or thought out of your conscious memory without realizing that you are doing so (it may still stay active in your unconscious mind).
- Projection: misattributing your feelings/thoughts onto someone else. Ex: thinking that the other person doesn’t like you when in reality you don’t like them.
- Displacement: taking out your emotions on someone/something unrelated to the trigger that caused your emotions in the first place. Ex: getting angry at your partner because of something that happened at work.
- Rationalization: inventing logical explanations to “explain away” the source of your negative feelings.
- Intellectualization: converting a personal problem/situation into an abstract intellectual problem and focusing on solving that instead.
- Sublimation: channelling your emotions/feelings towards an activity you want to pursue. Ex: channelling your anger into sports.
- Passive aggression: expressing your feelings indirectly through words or action.
- Reaction formation: acting in a way that’s opposite of what your emotions/feelings demand. Ex: being extra nice to someone you don’t want to hangout with.
- Fantasy: avoiding dealing with reality by retreating into imagination.
- Humour: trying to focus on the funny aspect of a negative situation.
- Altruism: feeling better by helping someone else who might be feeling or experiencing the same state of mind as yours.
- Acting out: expressing your emotions through exaggerated actions like yelling or throwing a tantrum.
- Dissociation: separating yourself from your emotions or feelings.
- Avoidance: avoiding the source of your negative emotions/feelings instead of dealing with them.
I’m not going to share which of these defence mechanisms are compatible with which others. However, that should be an interesting conversation to have with your partner or prospective partner in order to discover how your defence mechanisms might be influencing the other.
Takeaway: Having compatible defence mechanisms makes it more likely that your conflicts get resolved in a healthy and timely manner instead of dragging you over into the unhealthy zones.