19. TherapeuticCues-Age-InapprBeh - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

19. TherapeuticCues-Age-InapprBeh

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out of Dev Chrysalis Intimacy/Relationship

Out of the Developmental Chrysalis in Intimacy and Relationship Therapy
by Ronald Mah

"OK… whatever.  You're right… you're always right.  Do what you want."  Ostensibly, these seem to be words of agreement or compliance.  In actuality, they are bland to sarcastic jabs of disagreement, submission, and avoidance that have developmental foundations.  There are three specific developmentally based responses among other defense mechanisms.  Defense mechanisms are mental mechanisms that "…alter veridical perception- were postulated to function so as to protect the person from excessive anxiety, whether the source of that anxiety be the perception of a disturbing external event or the presence of a disruptive internal psychological state (e.g., a wish, drive, or fear) (Freud, 1936)... anxiety resulting from extreme external threat may be reduced by failing to perceive, or to register the meaning of, the threatening event; this is accomplished through the use of the defense of denial (literally "not seeing") or, alternatively, by not understanding the import of what one is seeing… Defense mechanisms may also protect against a disruptive inner state… Defense mechanisms, like coping strategies, are ways of dealing with adversity" (Cramer, page 920).  Defense mechanism differs from coping mechanisms or strategies, which are conscious and purposeful.  Defense mechanisms happen unconsciously and without conscious intention.  Coping mechanisms are for handling or solving problems or difficult situations.  Defensive mechanisms attempt to change inner psychological states but do not and cannot change things in the real world.  Defense mechanism can moreover distort reality for the individual.  Defensive mechanisms are relatively stable and enduring for individuals, while coping mechanisms may change depending on the situation and maturation.

Since children have developmental issues distinguishing between reality and fantasy while adults supposedly should not have such issues, appropriate or mature defenses differ by age.  Between six to twelve years of age there is a decline in control strategies that try to alter the situation to fit ones needs and an increase in secondary control strategies for better accepting what cannot be changed or changing oneself to fit better with the environment.  Among older children and teens, there is also an increase in cognitive control strategies such as distracting oneself from unalterable problems or conditions (Cramer, page 926-28).  While these are the developmental expectations for mature adults, reality or therapy presents many individuals who do not utilize appropriate strategies, especially under stress and in couples.  Immature defenses in adults are negatively associated with many areas of life stress, illness, emotional problems, and not surprisingly, to marital relationships (Bouchard and Theriault, 2003, page 81).  Positive marital adjustment was found associated with mature defenses.  "This means that the more individuals are satisfied with their marital life, the more they

1) try to modify their aggressive thoughts;

2) try to be nice to their spouse even if they do not always deserve it;

3) get satisfaction from helping others;

4) tend to apologize after being assertive;

5) try to look on the bright side of things;

6) do something creative when facing marital difficulties;

7) make plans of action and follow them when facing marital difficulties; and, finally,

8) make a lot of effort to make things work.  

In sum, the more individuals manifest altruistic and prosocial behaviours or attitudes, undertake deliberate efforts to alter the stressful situation, and try to be positive when facing marital difficulties, the more adjusted they should be in their marital life.  This means that behaviours and cognitions that reduce the tension between spouses are associated with a high level of marital adjustment."
In contrast, the present results show that immature defences and distancing/avoidance are negatively associated with marital adjustment.  This means that the more individuals are dissatisfied with their marital life, the more they

1) hope a miracle will happen or go on as if nothing had happened when facing marital difficulties;

2) try to forget marital difficulties;

3) think that people, such as the spouse, are either good or bad;

4) act impulsively when something is bothering them;

5) get aggressive when they feel hurt; and, finally,

6) try to hide their feelings.  

In sum, the more individuals manifest passivity, impulsiveness, and aggressiveness when facing difficulties, the less adjusted they will be in their marital life.  This means that behaviours and cognition that create or exacerbate the tension between spouses are associated with a low level of marital adjustment" (Bouchard and Theriault, 2003, page 87-88)

It is important to note "The use of defense mechanisms is a necessary part of normal development, and that defenses may be considered pathological only if they are used with too great intensity, or if they are age-inappropriate, or if they continue to be used in situations where they are no longer needed" (Cramer, page 931).  Baumeister (1998, page 1082) points out that a specific role for some defense mechanisms is to maintain a positive view of oneself.  Individuals may engage in various mechanisms, including self-deception to create an inflated self-perception (self-esteem).  However, an internal or external event may occur that contradicts the self-image that makes it necessary for the individual to use some mechanism or process to defend against its threatening implications.  It is normal to have conflicts in couple's relationships, and self-image is often challenged by ones partner.  Immature mechanisms to handle these stressful situations can intensify already difficult relationships.  Porcerelli, et al., (2004, page 317) says, "Immature defense mechanisms may not be sufficient to control aggression.  For example, the denial of aggressive urges and the projection of them onto another may increase the likelihood that a person will be aggressive toward another.  Their findings on student men whose conflicts escalate to more violent behaviors had not matured developmentally as would be age-appropriate to identifying with others.  The greater use of violence in conflict situations suggests a relationship to immature defenses and ego development.  

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
Back to content | Back to main menu