How Denial and Avoidance Can Ruin Your Finances And Relationship

communication defense mechanisms Nov 23, 2021

Denial is a common defense mechanism where you refuse to accept facts or reality.

Avoidance is a defense mechanism where you might avoid dealing with a tough issue through different behaviors and responses such as procrastination, rumination, and passive-aggressiveness. 

Together, denial and avoidance are defense mechanisms that help someone avoid difficult feelings and situations which feel overwhelming to them. 

These coping mechanisms can cause more harm than good in daily life and relationships. In fact, they can be destructive to your finances and your intimate relationship if not dealt with. 

What is Denial and Avoidance? 

With denial, you block information from your mind so that you don't have to deal with it or the emotional impact of that information. You avoid painful feelings or events by denying that they events ever happened or that the information exists. 

Denial is a widely known defense mechanism and is often thrown around with the phrase "you're in denial", which is commonly used to say that someone is avoiding reality. 

Avoidance is when you avoid coping with a situation, emotion, or information by distracting yourself with other things or avoiding the topic. It's slightly different than denial in that the individual doesn't deny that the situation or information exists. Instead, they do whatever is in their power to ignore the information, situation, or feeling that's making them uncomfortable.

Both denial and avoidance serve to help someone ignore a situation, feeling, or information that is emotionally overwhelming to them. 

Denial and Avoidance Aren’t Always Bad

Both denial and avoidance are double edged swords. Although they can be helpful in the short term, they are ultimately very destructive in the long term. 

Here's an example, imagine that you were just notified that your dog died, but you have to go up on stage and give your first ever TED talk.

What do you do in that situation? You can't delay the TED talk, the audience has already gathered, and you're ready to go on stage. But you loved your dog and you will be overwhelmed the moment you allow yourself to feel the weight the loss.

This is when someone may use denial and avoidance as a positive short-term coping strategy. They might think to themselves "that can't be true" and go on stage and give their talk having denied the reality that their dog has died. Or perhaps they avoid thinking about the topic or feeling anything about it in the moment by changing the subject and pushing away their feelings. These strategies will allow the individual to get through the TED talk in the short-term without having to cope with the potentially overwhelming emotions involved with feeling the loss of their beloved pet. 

How Denial and Avoidance Increase Stress

When denial and avoidance are used long-term people stop functioning in adaptive ways.  This essentially means that they are no longer coping with the things that need to be coped with in their reality. 

Although avoidance and denial are used to avoid stressful feelings, they ultimately increase stress. 

You can deny that you've lost your job, that your wife wants to divorce you, or that you have a lump on your leg that needs to get checked out by the doctor all you want, but it doesn't make the problem go away.

The only thing avoidance and denial do in the long term is exacerbate the issue by making the person prolong the process of dealing with the information, situation, or emotion at hand. 

You see, even if you avoid thinking about the information, problem, or emotion in the short term you're still thinking about it on some level and it's causing stress. So even if you refuse to talk about losing your job that doesn't mean that the stress of losing your job disappears. You're simply ignoring it. 

A thing we often say in therapy is "the only way out is through" when we talk about emotions.

Yet, most people feel that by avoiding difficult emotions, like grief, they'll be able to avoid the pain of them.

Unfortunately that's not the truth. What happens instead is that the grief festers like an untreated wound and gets worse as the emotions and stress related to them continue to build like an infection.

Like a wound that you refuse to treat you end up protecting the sore spot and not allowing anyone or anything to touch it. So instead of dealing with the pain of your mother passing, you end up denying the emotional impact by avoiding your hometown and movies about moms. This works great until one day you have an unexpected reminder and it all comes crashing in. All of the soreness, pain, and discomfort.

How Denial And Avoidance Manifest In Finances

Denial and avoidance are extremely destructive when it comes to finances, yet these are some of the most common coping mechanisms people use when it comes to  their financial reality.

Avoidance and Denial coping in regard to finances often looks like: 

  • Avoid looking at their bank accounts
  • Ignore the overdue notice on their bills
  • Deny the notices from the bank that they have defaulted on their mortgage
  • Keep procrastinating on investing in their retirement
  • Change the subject when estate planning and wills come up

Denial And Avoidance In Relationships 

Even worse is that it can be destructive in relationships in regard to finances. Couples who are struggling with denial and avoidance will often have difficulty communicating about money. 

  • Refusal to engage in money talks
  • One partner doesn't want to know about the finances
  • Procrastination on important money decisions
  • Changing the subject when spending, saving, or investment comes up
  • Denying that the other partner's concerns are valid by saying things like "we have plenty in savings"

Denial and avoidance are closely linked with many of the other defense mechanisms we've been exploring on the blog including emotional invalidation, defensive projection, defensiveness, and even unintentional gaslighting. I encourage you to explore each of these to see how they've impacted you and your relationship in the past. 

How to Overcome Denial And Avoidance

The first step to overcoming avoidance and denial is always to become more aware of what's going on.

One of the reasons that one partner may use avoidance or denial is because their nervous system may get overwhelmed with these topics. They may actually feel flooded by adrenaline or strong emotion when finances or estate planning is brought up. So instead of coping with those emotions they avoid the topic all together. 

Techniques to help deal with the overwhelm include: 

  • Getting the partner who uses denial and avoidance on board ahead of time. Get them to buy into doing things differently.
  • Discuss how avoidance and denial are destructive and how they're damaging your relationship and financial life. You may want to seek out the help of a therapist or a coach to accomplish this. 
  • Writing down concerns and giving the partner time to think about one at a time in their own time and when confronted by them. 
  • Dealing with only one issue at a time. Not overwhelming the partner with all of the topics at once. 
  • Giving the partner a specific timeline for dealing with a specific financial topic and setting up automatic reminders for that partner of when you will discuss it. 
  • Learning communication skills and how to move through financial topics step-by-step like in my new course The Couples Guide to Financial Intimacy

With these steps couples can learn to overcome the destructive nature of avoidance and denial in relationships and in finances and build a strong foundation to build intimacy and wealth. 

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