Have you ever had this experience? Your partner (or someone close to you) says something hurtful, or behaves in a hurtful way, and then later, when confronted, won’t talk about it, or insists it never happened? These people may claim they never said or did what you say they did, or that they would never say such a thing or use such a tone. They charge that you are making it up or distorting reality. Denial can then lead to attack—you are the one in the wrong, controlling and misjudging with your incorrect reality.
Most all of us have had this experience, and it can be difficult and painful to navigate. When your partner denies ever having done what hurt you, it can feel like a brick wall goes up in the relationship, one with no way through. The wall prevents all growth and healing because, if what hurt you never happened, then the possibility of having your hurt feelings heard or acknowledged is off the table—moot. Empathy for something you “made up” is not an option.
Furthermore, when denial is at work, it can feel as if there is no possibility of improving the situation or of preventing what hurt you from happening again. According to your partner, what hurt you never happened. So, not only is your hurt invalid, but nothing about what happened—or didn’t happen—and then be addressed or resolved.
When someone close to you denies having said what you clearly heard—and more importantly, what upset you—it feels exasperating, enraging, and also heartbreaking. It feels like the end of the road, like there’s nowhere to go with your pain and anger. You’re just stuck with your bad feelings. But denial doesn’t have to be the end of the road, or of the conversation, even it’s designed to be. With awareness, a lot of patience, and emotional skill, even denial can be worked with and around. Whether or not what happened, happened only in your mind, you can still speak your truth, move the dial forward, and take care of yourself.
Of course, in any conversation, what we hear is being filtered through our own personal lens and history, our own narrative about the other person. What we hear is affected by what’s happening in that specific moment, and by all the years of interactions we’ve ever had with that person. We each hear and experience something different in most every interaction.
Often, when I ask couples to describe what took place in what they claim was the “same” encounter, their stories are unrecognizable when compared. What’s clear in working as a couple’s therapist (and being part of a couple) is that even though there may be one external reality, one set of words that technically were spoken—and that an audio recorder could play back—the rest of what actually happened is created in our own mind. And so, any time we are absolutely convinced that we heard certain words or a certain tone, we want to be mindful of the fact that we were hearing those words, and that tone, through a whole history of experiences, expectations, and wounds.
Our partner is also remembering those words, and that tone, through a whole history of experiences, expectations, and wounds—with us. And yes, this doesn’t change the fact that we heard what we heard, and we’re sure of it. We’re also sure of the pain we felt in hearing it. In our reality, that is the truth. And so, we hold this truth and, at the same time, we recognize that what’s real and what’s true are different for everyone.
And yet, the kind of denial I am addressing here is of a more basic variety—the kind that’s just plain denial. You know it when you see it: partners claiming that they didn’t do or say something they said or did. Or, that something they laid on you, like anger, wasn’t actually anger, even when they were fuming with rage. The denial I am referring to is not when your partner merely interprets an experience differently than you do. I’m referring to the more maddening and crazy-making kind, when there is a refusal to own or acknowledge what actually happened.
So, what can you do when you run into this kind of denial? How can you protect yourself from feeling shut down, holding the bag of emotional garbage that you want to get rid of? How can you, ultimately, still get your needs met? The first thing to do when you bump into denial, if you can bear it, is to stop, take a deep breath, and acknowledge what’s happening inside you. Take a half second to honor how painful it is to be told that what you lived, didn’t happen, and therefore, your hurt is not real.
Secondly, use “I” statements whenever possible. Lead with the words “For me” when you offer your experience. For example: “I heard you say such and such,” or “I experienced you as angry,” or “For me, it felt like anger.” Leaving out the “You said this” or “You did that” statements, will turn down the heat on the conflict and will also ease the fight about who’s right about what actually happened. It may also lower your partner’s defensiveness, of which denial is a part. Own what you heard and experienced, as opposed to accusing your partner of what you are certain happened. Accusations never lead anywhere good.
Furthermore, as soon as you realize your partner is going with denial, immediately extricate yourself from any and all battles about the contents of what actually happened. Drop the conversation about whose version of reality is the truth. You will not win your fight to be right—and there is no recording to offer testimony. The more you try to convince others of what actually happened, or try to get them to admit what they said, the more frustrated, angry, and hurt you will become—and the less likely you’ll be heard or feel known or loved.
How then can you still try to get what you need, when all roads lead to a dead-end? The most important thing you can do in the face of denial is to stay grounded in your truth and to speak from your own heart. What you can do is to shift the conversation to what you want and need in the relationship. Your partner’s denial need not block you from expressing your own needs. As calmly as you can, tell your partner what you hope to receive and experience in the relationship.
The reality is that you are not going to get an apology for something the other person claims never happened, nor will you get empathy for what you (wrongly) experienced. But you can use this denial as an opportunity to be clear about what you need and wish could happen going forward. As in: “What I’m really longing for is to feel like you’re on my side, to feel supported and encouraged.” Or perhaps: “I’m wanting to feel kindness from you, not judgment.” Whatever your heart is genuinely aching for—and that the upsetting interaction brought to awareness—go straight there. Meet the denial with your truth.
The fact is, when you stay connected to your own heart, to yourself, and stand in your own shoes—regardless of your partner’s response—then the interaction is a success, no matter what comes of it. You have stayed loyal to your own truth, and this, in and of itself, is a profound victory.