How the three defense mechanisms; dissociation, denial and armoring, relate to sexual satisfaction.
In this blog post, three common defenses, which according to sex therapist and researcher Gina Ogden (2008), are believed to surface in sexual relationships will be explored. They are disassociation, denial and armoring. Each defense will be discussed in relation to their possible origin in childhood, their physical and personality components and how, in adulthood, they may operate in couples with sexual problems.
Ego Defense Mechanisms and The Physical Body
Wilhelm Reich, the radical psychiatrist and Sigmund Freud successor, took the principles of ego-defenses and developed them into what he called “character structure” (Reich, 1933/1945). Unlike the ego-defenses, an individual’s character structure was the result of social processes first experienced within the nuclear family (Corrington, 2003). Reich proposed that “wounds” to the self were inflicted in early life. They may happen due to a hostile parent, or due to a lack of nurturing, or when a parent rejects a child’s natural expressiveness and creativity. The internalized wound becomes consolidated and “preserved” in the unconscious, as a part of the individual’s character structure. Thereafter, the defense becomes “an automatic mechanism independent of the conscious will” (Reich, 1933/1945 p. 154). It can potentially appear as a neurotic problem in every dimension of an individual’s functioning. By extension then, a defense-based neurotic problem would also disrupt normal sexual function.
Within the individual, these processes create what Reich called “character armoring.” He believed that in therapy, the client could dissolve the armor – or defenses – which would provoke the memory of the childhood experience that was the impetus for the blockage in the first place (Greenberg & Saffron, 1987).
Reich’s student, psychiatrist Alexander Lowen, took Reich’s work and developed a therapeutic system called Bioenergetics. This system combines psychoanalysis, Reich’s character defenses, and a decidedly physical component: subconscious muscle tension. In regards to this latter feature, Lowen introduced the importance of “grounding the body” through contact with the feet and the legs, as a means of bringing a client’s conscious awareness into their body, and out of their thoughts (Lowen, 1975).
Both Reich and Lowen affirmed that sexuality is a basic function of the human body along with moving, feeling, breathing and other forms of physical self-expression (Good & Rabinowitz, 2001). Interestingly, Reich discovered that many of his patients expressed a terror of the desire for sexual pleasure, which he called “pleasure anxiety.” He noted that it appeared in individuals who had grown up with parents who, while hiding behind a mask of “righteous self-discipline” engaged in physical and emotional abuse. He also observed it in adults born into cold emotionless families where affection was often withheld as a form of punishment. Gina Ogden reports that Reich called these families “factories of repression.” They were, in effect, “training grounds for sexual dysfunction, disconnection, joylessness and violence” (Ogden, 2008 p. 150). Lowen underscores how defenses, within such an oppressive developmental environment, operate both as survival mechanisms and serve to restrict life and vitality (Lowen, 1975).
The Three Defenses
In accordance with a Reichian-Lowenian theory of the defenses as they relate to sexual behavior, the first defense discussed here is disassociation. Disassociation as a diagnosable disorder is described in the DSM-V as “a disruption of and/or discontinuity in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, body representation, motor control and behavior” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 291). The growing literature on disassociation points to trauma as the cause. Traumatic experiences can fracture the structure of the self, resulting in hypnotic-like states and compromised awareness of reality (Gavin, 2010). During sex, dissociation can manifest as a tendency for an individual to drift in and out of conscious awareness resulting in an inability to be fully present. Such behavior might also indicate a weak emotional bond or a lack of attachment to the partner. However, dissociation is not always pathological or maladaptive. For example, it can be used adaptively to block out chronic pain. However, as G. Ogden (2008) points out, blocking pain can be a double-edged sword, reducing an individual’s ability to feel anything, including sexual ecstasy.
The second defense, denial, and more specifically, denial of reality, can serve as an adaptive mechanism to protect one’s values and beliefs from being corrupted. In its maladaptive form, denial distorts a person’s perceptions when faced with a traumatic situation. A simple analogy to describe denial would be of an ostrich burying its head in the sand when it’s threatened. Gerald Corey (2013) claims denial is the least complex of all ego-defenses in its basic blocking function. In a similar light, psychologist Phebe Cramer (1987), declares that denial is the most primal defense. In infancy, its purpose is to protect the immature child from harmful over-stimulation at a time when they are developmentally incapable of physically removing themselves or disengaging from an event.
As children grow older, the language of denial appears in commonly used phrases such as, “I’m not afraid,” and “It doesn’t hurt” (Cramer, 1987). Reich held that denial involves a process of self-negation. The child realizes that if their need causes them pain, then he or she will stop needing altogether. The capacity for desire is diminished in the process (Blanck, & Blanck, 1974).
In adulthood, denial occurs when a person ignores past or present memories or experiences that are unpleasant or too difficult to accept. Instead, as a defense, the attention shifts to innocuous things (Diehl et al., 2014). In the context of sexual relationships, G. Ogden (2008) proposes that denial serves several functions. It can serve to disconnect people from remembering an abusive and traumatic history they’d prefer to forget – which could be elicited in a close emotional relationship. From this angle, denial can be used to avoid the emotions elicited in intimate contact or sexual pleasure if those experiences provoke a traumatic memory or abuse the person would prefer to forget. It could also manifest in a belief that the minimal pleasure an individual receives from engaging in sex is normal. Finally, in more extreme cases, it might appear as a denial that sex is important and could manifest as a denial that sexual desire even exists.
The third defense in the Reichian-Lowenian framework is armoring which, according to Lowen (1975) manifests as a pattern of muscular tension in the body. Much like a suit of armor, this tension serves to protect the individual from threatening and painful emotional experiences or from the aggression of others. The armor also shields the individual from their own harmful impulses (Lowen, 1975). The origins of armoring, according to Lowen (1958) is in childhood and is linked to the experience of love, early erotic feelings and developing sexuality. As the child enters into adolescence and begins to sexually mature, the parent of the opposite sex – who previously had been affectionate and available – pulls their physical affection away. References to “Daddy’s little girl” and “Mommy’s big man” disappear. Since the child/early adolescent is still immature in their understanding and is unable to differentiate between love, erotic pleasure and sexuality, they experience this as a rejection by their parent. The side effect of the rejection is a blow to their capacity for sensual and sexual feeling. To compensate for this rejection, the child resolves to control all the emotions involved with this rejection – the rage and the pain, but also the positive feelings of emerging sexuality – by holding them back (Lowen, 1958). As this defense is woven into the ego structure, it manifests as ongoing issues of control, and as a preoccupation with a prideful presentation of self and to never “look bad.” Although Gina Ogden (2008) prefers to calls this defense, “armoring” it is not to be confused with Reich’s more global defensive formation “character armoring.”
Not surprisingly, an individual with this defense has a tendency to hold themselves stiff, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. They place tough restrictions on their own behavior, resulting in a guardedness. In terms of sex, these tin men and women will tend to compulsively hold back on their erotic impulses and be unable to “let go” during orgasm and surrender to their pleasure instincts (Lowen, 1975).
Lowen (1975) emphasized the importance of understanding nonverbal communication or what he called, “the language of the body” to probe the mind-body character of the defenses. For example, when a person tries to mask their feelings with an artificial postural attitude, their body belies the hidden truth by way of the prevalence of tension. Lowen points out that “telling a lie creates a state of body tension that is reflected in blood pressure, pulse rate and the electrical conductance of the skin” (Lowen, 1975, p. 100), (hence the lie detector test). A bioenergetic example of armoring in terms of mind/body connections and its effect on sexuality appears in a pattern of an “armored” person’s muscle tension. Such people, according to Lowen, can quite literally be tight-assed or choke-necked. Under such tension, it is impossible for them to have gratifying sexual relations because they are incapable of letting go into feelings of intense sexual pleasure for fear of looking foolish (Lowen, 1975).
G. Ogden (2008) claims that armoring can make it impossible for an individual to make genuine contact or bond with a sexual partner since the defense inhibits the expression of feelings, so essential to intimacy. Pleasurable sex between armored couples is simply an impossibility (Ogden, 2008).
Research findings addressing obstacles to healthy marital relationships dovetails with the effects of armoring in relationships. Although not identified as an ego-defense, and not direct heirs to Reich/Lowen lineage, famed relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman have developed the concept of “stonewalling” (Gottman, 1998). Stonewalling is a defensive response which occurs when a member of a couple emotionally removes or withdraws from their partner. According to their research, 85 percent of stonewallers are men. During a confrontation, when the man employs stonewalling as a defense, his pulse rate and blood pressure is likely to rise indicating – in a Lowenian sense – that there is a physiological dimension operating in stonewalling, as well. The implications are serious: once either spouse becomes a chronic stonewaller, the marriage becomes volatile and the fate of the relationship is unpredictable without intervention. In regards to sexual intimacy, stress and tension becomes so prevalent that couples refrain from interacting altogether (Gottman, 1998).
To Sum It All Up
When it comes to the use of defense mechanisms, there is a physicality and a palpability to them. For example, when a person is disassociating during sex, they can feel distracted and disembodied. When a person is in denial about their sex life with their partner and acts as though it’s “fine” when it’s not, or that it “doesn’t matter” when it does, there’s a dissonance that occurs as physical intimacy and sexual pleasure are avoided. Lastly, when a person is armoring during sex, there is a lack of physical intensity and sexual ecstasy, which is replaced by physical stress and tension. What these defense mechanisms all have in common is their role in keeping couples sexually dissatisfied and insecurely attached.
Stay tuned for Part III of this blog series, which summarizes the relationship between defense mechanisms and securely attaching to our significant others.
Written by Julie Schmit, MA, LAMFT
©2018-2019 Julie Schmit, Shakti Bodyworks, LLC, DBA Jumpstart Counseling Studio
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