Denial as a developmentally youthful defense appears to be related to outward directed aggression (Porcerelli, et al., 2004, page 319). Denial is one of the three basic defense mechanisms revolving around the infant and his or her mouth. Denial is the refusing to take in what the other is trying to make you accept. The infant denies by clamping his or her lips tightly together so that nothing can enter his or her mouth. The infant cannot choose the food; cannot choose the portion, the temperature, the utensil, the site, and so forth unless the adult is willing to cooperate. His or her only power is to deny. "Mmmph! NO!" Shutting down, the silent treatment, no sex, passive dispassionate agreement which is actually passive-aggressive, and ignoring are forms of denial. Denying implies that the ingestion of the concept- that is, agreement or compliance with the other, means taking in some poison or otherwise harmful compound. It is often very obvious that the denial is illogical to everyone else, but still is clung to nevertheless. What then is the poisonous symbolism? The therapist needs to find out what does ingestion take in symbolically that is so psychically fatal.
Nate continually criticizes the decisions Holly makes about their children's education, house cleaning, spending, etc. When asked to explore and express what he feels and underlies his frustration, Nate told the therapist what he thinks. He evaluates and analyzes. A classic gender stereotype is of men who always respond with what they think when asked what they feel. This often is a consequence of male cultural training to disconnect from dangerous vulnerable feelings combined with family-of-origin experiences where vulnerability was derided. When confronted with this, Nate still focused on the illogical nature of his Holly's behavior and choices, while denying any emotional logic underlying them. He can own that he is angry; that is permissible for a "man". However, Nate denies the underlying hurt that preceded and ignited the anger. What he cannot own is that he is hurt because Holly shutting him out of the parenting attacks his basic sense of worth. Since the therapist has noticed the age-inappropriate defense mechanism, he or she should explore what may be Nate's deeper issues. The therapist can choose a strategy or approach depending on his or her theoretical orientation or style. In confronting and then processing this with the Nate, they discover that his deep fear of abandonment and exclusion from childhood rejection by his parents motivates his anger and criticism. In addition, he could not express about this, because his father always asserted, "Real men don't whine!" Nate had learned to deny this vulnerability because of his fear that owning it would drag him into the depths of despair he endured as a child—that is the poison.
The therapist can access this by invoking logic. The therapist can take a stance "for" one person or perspective and "against" the other. And, then asking assertive and provocative statements and questions, that push for depth and revealing introspection. "It doesn't make sense for you to deny that. It's obvious that it hurts to be shut out of parenting. And Nate, you're not stupid. And, I don't believe you aren't aware of what your criticism does to Holly, or that you don't care that she hurts. But there must be something very compelling that you are taking care of that makes it difficult if not impossible to agree or acknowledge Holly in this way. What is it that agreeing would mean that is so painful or dangerous? Or, what do you lose by acknowledging?" Some therapists may not be as direct and will use other approaches they find more appropriate. Working with denial requires both a theoretical soundness and an artistic sophistication of the therapist.