I recently had to let go of someone who had brought my life great meaning and joy. Issues arose in which my only choices beyond self-deception were to spiral down a rabbit hole of dysfunction, or to seek help to unravel and address the issues. I was unwilling to do the first, and she was unwilling to do the second — the stalemate to separation.

Ending a relationship with someone you have loved, entrusted and been enriched by is a lot like having to go into the office and fire your best friend for embezzlement: it is hard for you to believe the facts, and this is a day and discussion you dread and try to postpone for as long as you can. Whether the reason for ending the relationship stems from the incompetence of apathy or the embezzlement of infidelity, it is still a painful decision to reach, deliver and execute. No one is immune from heartbreak.

So why do we so often fall into the dense fog of denial and deception? Why do we deny the existence of a problem in a relationship and psychologically defend dysfunction? And how do we break free of this denial to acknowledge and manage reality?

While studies show the existence of a truth bias that hinders our ability to detect lies once we become emotionally connected to a romantic partner (McCornack & Parks, 1986; Millar & Millar, 1995), little reliable data shows the prevalence of our own self-deception in romantic relationships. However, denial and self-deception are common in relationships where infidelity or abuse occur. In such relationships, the estimates of marital infidelity among American couples ranges from 26 percent to 70 percent for women and from 33 percent to 75 percent for men (Eaves & Robertson-Smith, 2007). This may give us a general idea of the fertile ground that is ripe for self-deceit.

Why Do We Do It?

As anyone who has invested in one can attest, romantic relationships are complex and defy a pithy definition or logic that explains the why they begin and end, thrive, or barely survive. One reality of relationships is that they do not need to follow the mind’s (practical) logic to be successful, but instead can heavily depend upon the heart’s (emotional) logic as a driver of satisfaction. One may describe a practical list of characteristics of an ideal relationship or mate, but after close examination many relationships may align very infrequently with those listed attributes and may actually be based largely on emotional needs, or even vulnerabilities, including fear and insecurity.

In fact, in the largely murky emotional shades of the heart’s grey logic, only splinters of the black-and-white view of the mind’s logic may actually exist. This may predispose us to denial and self-deception. To preserve the heart’s logic, our emotions commandeer those beliefs we see through our conscious vision. This subconscious greatly influences what the conscious sees, acknowledges, interprets and believes, and any dissonance comes in the form of denial.

Daniel Goldman (1996) writes: “When we deceive, delude or deny to our self, we mislead our self, we misrepresent or disown what we know to be true, we lie to our self, we refuse to acknowledge that which we know. The mind can protect itself against anxiety by diminishing awareness. In short, denial is a psychological defense mechanism that helps a person avoid a potentially distressing truth.”

Darlene Lancer (2014) offers another explanation of why we deny and self-deceive: “While attachments help create stability, there is a downside. Attachments are less concerned that you are happy with your partner and more concerned that you stay together. In fact, many people form an attachment to someone who they do not like as a person.”

The link between mental health and physical health and disease is well established (Miller et al., 2009), but its most immediate effects are on our psychological state. For example, infidelity is one of the most damaging issues in a relationship (Whisman, Dixon & Johnson, 1997). In cases of partner infidelity, where feelings of deception, betrayal, rejection, stolen dignity, anger, loss, mental anguish, self-doubt, mourning and bereavement (McCornack & Levine, 1990a) can all result in an increased risk of such mental health problems as depression and anxiety, we easily see why we would subconsciously avoid distressing truths that bring emotional tumult.

To add to the psychological maelstrom, denial and self-deception may also instigate self-criticism in addition to the feelings that normally accompany depression (Blatt et al., 1982). This has implications on the therapeutic process (Gilbert et al., 2006). Yet denial and self-deception are firmly ingrained in all of our behavioral decision-making processes, including food choices, consumer purchases, substance use, and sexual risk-taking. We are on a lifelong quest to curtail our emotional vulnerabilities while managing and balancing our emotions. Ideally, we acknowledge and embrace our emotional needs and enjoy the full passion of love and romance without falling prey to denial and self-deception.

Escaping denial and self-deception and setting our paths on the road to healthier relationships requires four steps:

  1. Look for the signs.Signs of denial and self-deception can range from feelings of suspicion to excusing, making exceptions, and rationalizing a situation. These indicators should prompt us to investigate whether an emotional block has been constructed to deny what may be painful truths. Darlene Lancer (2014) provides excellent examples of signs of this denial.
  2. Conduct a reality check.We must share our suspicions or the facts with someone who can listen to us and provide objective feedback. A trusted confidante may be able to listen and not allow any of her or his own personal issues to taint an assessment of reality. But, ideally, a neutral third party such as a therapist might yield more objective, accurate feedback.
  3. Brace yourself.Acknowledging reality can be emotionally painful. We must seek evidence-based resources to satisfy the mind’s logic, while identifying friends or family who can be the emotional supports we need to grapple with and soothe the heart’s logic.
  4. Seek therapy.Depending on the significance of the relationship, the severity of the circumstances, and the decisions made, therapy can be a powerful catalyst to help manage the emotional responses, promote healing, and create greater awareness and sensitivity in relationships moving forward.

We will inevitably succumb to denial at some point in our love experiences and histories. Just as certain as a first kiss, a first rapture or a first heartbreak, we will go on to experience and sometimes repeat denial and self-deception in our relationships. This presents us with especially challenging recovery conditions. We must manage not only the consequences of a broken or terminated relationship, but also the feelings of guilt, embarrassment or self-criticism that may stem from knowing that we followed a distorted view of reality rather than seeing what was before our eyes and becoming wise stewards of our relationship. These four steps will help us to manage a tough reality.