What we deny or ignore, we delay. What we accept and face, we conquer. Robert Tew
Last Friday I visited one of my friends for our usual Prosecco Friday. We have been meeting regularly for quite a while now and when I was still with him, this weekly ritual was the only thing that kept me sane. Almost every Friday, my friend would patiently listen to my many woes while we slowly sipped our bubbly. She was the only person with whom I felt confident enough to discuss anything because she never judged me or gave unsolicited advice and never told me that I was a fool for staying in an abusive relationship. She would just tell me that his awful behaviour was not that of a loving partner and that maybe, I was making far too many excuses for him.
Last week, I suddenly realised that the tables have turned and that she now finds herself in a similar relationship. However, she strangely does not seem to be aware of it. She has been with her boyfriend for just over three years and although she says that she is content with a casual relationship, I can clearly see that she is not.
During the course of the evening, I could see that she kept checking her mobile phone, so I asked her what the matter was. Apparently, her boyfriend had not been in touch for over a week after she had complained to him about something he had done. I explained to her that it looked very much like he was subjecting her to the silent treatment, a passive aggressive method favoured by emotional manipulators. However she was making excuses for him, saying that he must have been busy with work and that maybe he had a problem with his mobile phone.
This took me back to the days when I was the one acting in this way and it dawned on me how ironic the situation was. We are easily able to see when others are subjected to abusive behaviour, but it is very difficult to recognise when we are. This is mainly due to the many cognitive biases that we have. When we love someone, we find it hard to see their faults and flaws just as we find it hard to see the virtues of the people we hate.
Another bias that we have and that blinds us to the truth is the tendency to deny hard evidence in order to avoid psychological pain. However, this denial of evidence or reality often causes greater pain in the future, when we eventually become unable to avoid reality. We cannot offset the pain for ever. There comes a time when the evidence becomes so incriminating, that denial becomes impossible.
Denial usually happens in three ways:
- The first one consists in ignoring the evidence that is presented to us. We can pretend to ourselves that we did not see it. That it is just an insignificant detail.
- Secondly, we tend to rationalise the evidence. We try to find reasons for the information that we have. “He must be too busy to phone.” “Maybe he is under a lot of pressure.” “He had an unhappy childhood.” “He’s never been in a long term relationship.”
- Thirdly, we can react against the evidence. “He is not abusing me.” “He is not hurtful on purpose.”…
Emotional manipulators bend the truth to make it fit their lies and we bend their lies back to make it fit our truth. Everything is distorted. We tolerate the lies, despite the many clues to the contrary because it is easier to deny the truth than live with the painful consequence and we accept the falsehoods because of the many biases that we have. This is why we can see what is happening to other people but we cannot see what is happening to us.
During counselling, my therapist suggested to following techniques in order to move past this detrimental and harmful denial:
- Making a cost versus benefits list. What are the benefit of staying in the relationship? What are the costs?
- Keeping a journal of the events and how you feel each time.
- Imagining someone else is living our experience (daughter, sister, best friend…), what advice would we give them?
- Detach ourselves emotionally to have a clear overview of the situation.
Nobody can make us see what we do not want to see. We have to see it for ourselves. The truth sometimes hurts, but the longer we wait to accept it the deeper the wound will be.
Denying or ignoring the truth doesn’t change it or make it disappear. It took me a long time to admit to myself that my relationship was toxic and that my ex-partner was treating me in an abusive way, whereas my friends and family could clearly see it. When I eventually did, the truth was crushing and it took me a long time to heal. Facing the truth early on, could have spared me a lot of heartache.
The truth cannot be avoided for ever.