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Defense Mechanisms & How They Can Affect Your Sexual Relationships

In this 3-part blog post you will learn:

1) What defense mechanisms are in relationship to psychology

2) How they relate to the human body and sexual satisfaction

3) A summary on their relationship to securely attaching to our significant others

Part I

Defense Mechanisms

A study of Sigmund Freud’s original writings on the topic of defense mechanisms in light of current views makes apparent that the definitions of and distinctions between the defenses have changed over time. Theories about how they emerge within the individual have evolved as well.

Among the many theories of the defenses, the most inclusive view is rooted in models of ego-psychology (Diehl et al., 2014). Researcher, psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, George Valliant (1986) endorses a revised psychodynamic view, which asserts that although there is little information about how distinct defense styles are created, there is agreement that defense mechanisms are unconsciously driven, involuntary reactions to perceived threats. According to Valliant, each defense includes five distinct features: a) they govern instincts and emotions; b) they are unconscious mechanisms; c) they are distinct entities; d) although they can indicate a major psychopathology, they can be altered; and e) they can be linked to health as well as pathology.

One way the theory of the defenses has altered over time is in revised thinking about their relation to developmental stages. Freud, for example, linked the emergence of specific defenses to one of his stages (e.g., phallic, oral, etc.) (Freud, S., 1924/1993). Anna Freud (1936), however, dissented from her father’s stage theory, insisting instead that individual differences play a larger role in terms of which of the defense reactions will be elicited and that the context also strongly impacts which defense is employed to deal with an ego threat.

More recent research that incorporates advances in developmental psychology suggests that how the defenses are used by individuals changes across the lifespan (Diehl et al., 2014). In an effort to examine the age-related correlation between the utilization of defense mechanisms, Diehl and associates (2014), conducted a study using a sample of 392 European adults. As an assessment tool they administered the California Psychological Inventory, a self-report instrument that among other things, assesses people’s psychological understanding of their own and other’s behavior. They found an age-related correlation between defense strategies and the more adaptive “coping defenses.” In sum, as people age and became more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated, their use of defense and coping strategies alter as well, toward greater complexity (Diehl et al., 2014).

Paul Lerner (1990), one of the creators of a scale currently used to assess defense systems, proposes that after Freud, the most dramatic change in the theory of defense arose in the school of Object Relations that began with the work of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Object Relations Theory maintains the premise that infant experiences form the basis for how adults relate to others in their environment. Klein re-conceptualized ego defenses by indicating that such mechanisms not only control drives and affect, but impact intimate relationships with other people. Consequently, they effect the individual’s capacity to understand, organize and internalize relationships (Lerner, 1990).

This significant shift in theory indicated that defenses were no longer conceptualized solely as a internal “machinery” working to counter a particular conflict or impulse, as was valid for classical Freudian psychoanalysis. Instead, defenses were seen as part of a series of cognitive and relational patterns that are established in the context of relationships with others during one’s early life. Moreover, in the Klein approach, the purpose of the defenses are extended to include the protection of a person’s self-esteem, rather than only acting to protect a person from becoming conscious of ideas or thoughts that would create anxiety were they remembered (Cooper, 1998).

Several other researchers have re-conceptualized defenses, generating a number of far-reaching classifications and categorizations which make it difficult to establish clear distinctions (Blackman, 2004). Moreover, the linkage of the defenses to sexual behavior are not well-established in the literature, nor are they geared in a way to show a direct correlation to sexual intimacy. And, as is true with other features of Freudian theory, the scientific critique remains regarding the difficulty of establishing the defense mechanism’s objective validity and reliability (Lowen, 1975).

For the purposes of 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.

Stay tuned for Part II :How the three defense mechanisms; dissociation, denial and armoring, relate to the human body sexual satisfaction.

Written by Julie Schmit, MA, LAMFT

©2018 Julie Schmit, Shakti Bodyworks, LLC, DBA Jumpstart Counseling Studio


Blankman, J. (2004). 101 Defense mechanisms: How the mind shields itself. New York, NY: Brunner Routledge.

Cooper, S. (1998). Changing notions of defense within psychoanalytic theory. Journal of Personality. 66(6). 947-963. Retrieved from

Diehl, M., Chui, H., Hay, E., Lumley, M., Gruhn, D., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2014). Change in coping and defense mechanisms across adulthood: longitudinal findings in a European American sample. Developmental Psychology. 50:2, 634-648. doi: 10.1037/a0033619

Freud, A. (1937). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. Honolulu, HI: Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. (1924/1993). Sexuality and the Psychology of Love (Rieff, P., Ed.). New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co.

Lerner, P. (1990). Rorschach assessment of primitive defenses: A review. Journal of Personality Assessment. 54(1&2). 30-46. Retrieved from

Lowen, A. (1958). The Language of the Body. New York, NY: MacMillian Publishing Company.

Lowen, A. (1975). Bioenergetics. New York, NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc.

Ogden, G. (2008). The return of desire. Boston, MA: Trumpeter Books.

Valliant, G.E. (1986). Empirical studies of ego mechanisms of defense. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

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By | 2018-05-18T22:22:48+00:00 July 15th, 2018|Blog|0 Comments