Defense Mechanisms That Can Hurt Your Relationships

Defense Mechanisms

Healthy relationships are an important part of our lives that give us meaning and happiness. But if our actions are actively hurting our relationships, it can be hard to feel that sense of fulfillment. Unfortunately, many people every day hurt or ruin their relationships with their actions, most often by using harmful defense mechanisms. 

Defense mechanisms are strategies we use to cope with situations and people that are unpleasant to us. These situations often bring about anxious thoughts and feelings which we wish to avoid. Although some defense mechanisms are healthy (these are “mature defense mechanisms” in psychology), the truth is that many common defense mechanisms can do more harm than good. 

Any use of an unhealthy or immature defense mechanism can wear down even the strongest bonds. This article will go over the five common defense mechanisms that are known to hurt and deteriorate relationships. 

Table of Contents


Projection refers to the act of misattributing thoughts or emotions onto another person in order to avoid them in oneself. This is done to take the focus off the person who has these emotions and push the blame elsewhere.

For example, a person may feel uncomfortable with their emotional responses, but instead of working on them, the person criticizes a coworker every time they show the slightest bit of emotion. 

Another example includes a married person who has feelings for another person. Instead of confronting and processing those feelings, this person may lash out at their partner every time they interact with someone they perceive as attractive. 

As you can see, projection prevents people from working on their flaws. Instead, people who project push the blame onto others, even though those people rarely do anything wrong. Those who use projection have a hard time keeping partners, friends, and family around since they are constantly blaming their loved ones for their own flaws and issues. 


Denial is perhaps the most commonly known defense mechanism. When someone is in denial, they are rejecting the current reality in front of them because it makes them uncomfortable. Instead of accepting the situation, they act as though it does not exist. This is a way to avoid the situation altogether, because it is too distressing to acknowledge its existence. 

This can be quite damaging in relationships. Those who use denial as a defense mechanism often deny that they do or say anything that hurts their loved ones. When confronted, the person in denial will act as though the things they did and said never happened. Depending on how conscious the person is of their actions, this could potentially lead to gaslighting

Ignoring reality does not make it go away. Denial only pushes the situation farther down the road, often leading to bigger and more damaging problems. This defense also deteriorates relationships quickly as loved ones learn not to discuss their needs or any issues that they have. 

Passive Aggressive Behavior

Though most people don’t realize it, passive-aggressive behavior is an act of hostility. Many people develop passive-aggressive behavior because they either don’t want or don’t know how to ask for their needs in a healthier, more direct way. They often deny their true emotions and aren’t honest with their thoughts, using other strategies to get their messages across instead. 

People who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior have a hard time being open and honest with their loved ones, effectively shutting down communication and making any progress through hardships, conflict, and struggles. The added hostility further deteriorates relationships, causing more tension and strife rather than working through conflict in an open and more respectful way. 


Have you ever taken your work frustrations out on your partner? If so, then you exhibited displacement. Displacement is the act of redirecting negative emotions and thoughts from their source and acting them out on a less threatening subject. 

People who work toxic, stressful, or just frustrating jobs are usually not in a position to work out the issues with their boss. Perhaps their boss is not understanding or is too imposing to approach. Therefore, many people use displacement as a way to deal with their emotions. They come home angry with work but take it out on their partners and children, who are less likely to be a threat. 

Obviously, this can quickly hurt a relationship. In many cases, the victim of displacement has not done anything to deserve such a reaction. This can leave them hurt and confused. Those who use displacement may find minor issues to use to take out their anger on, wearing down their partner and pushing them away. 

Final Thoughts

Did you identify with any of these defense mechanisms? Have you begun to realize how they can negatively affect your relationships? 

Having this awareness is the key to improving. If you identify with any of these behaviors, the good news is that you can develop healthier coping strategies. By using mindfulness, inner work, and working with a therapist, you can develop more mature defense mechanisms that are not harmful to your relationships.


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