Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hitting Denial on the Head

In my post of June 11, How Can You Be Empathic With a Child Abuser? I mentioned the importance for an adult who was a victim of past abuse of finding a way to talk with the perpetrators about, or metacommunicate about, the family dynamics that led to the abuse . I also discussed the secret of getting past their defenses - empathy - but mentioned that empathy alone was not enough.

One of the biggest challenges in any such endeavor is staying cool while an abusive parent systematically denies ever having been abusive. Not only is this denial of the facts - or lying as I prefer to call it - infuriating, but once a person gets through one type of denial with the perpetrator, there are three other types of denial that will likely follow, one after the other.

Barrett and Trepper, in an article in the Family Therapy Networker (now the Psychotherapy Networker) in 1992, pointed out that families have multiple layers of denial, which often come out in the same order. As one breaks through each of these resistances, the next one pops up in its place.

The presence of denial is not a reason to avoid attempting to metacommunicate. The presence of multiple resistances represents multiple problems to be solved, not multiple reasons for giving up. Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing that these maneuvers may be forthcoming from perpetrators helps former or even current victims steel themselves in order to maintain an empathic stance throughout what may be a lengthy process.

Barrett and Trepper’s predictable stages of denial are as follows:

1. Denial of facts (“it never happened; you’re a liar!”), followed by:

2. Denial of awareness (“I was drunk,” or “I didn’t realize I was neglecting you; you should have told me”), followed by:

3. Denial of responsibility (“You were the one who was seductive,” or “If your mother didn’t deny me, I wouldn’t have to have turned to you.”) and finally:

4. Denial of impact (“It only happened a few times,” or “It was only fondling,” or “OK, so I beat you. Why do you always have to dwell on the past? You’re just too sensitive; get over it!”).

The exact words and strategies to use in order to counter these types of statements is different in every family. For many people, attempting to confront an abusive parental figure probably is a not wise thing to do without the guidance of a therapist who is well versed in this type of work. This is particularly true for a highly reactive family in which physical violence or vicious verbal attacks are a distinct possibility. A bad attempt at metacommunication can actually be far worse than no attempt at all.

Barrett and Trepper, in the same article, say that they “…believe that some part of every offender is appalled by his own deeds and desperately yearns for the kind of inner peace and satisfaction found in healthy relationships not based on power, manipulation, and secrecy.” As I discussed in my earlier post, I concur wholeheartedly, although many other therapists may disagree.


  1. You borrow at leas two terms from psychoanalytic theory: resistance and denial. How do you distinguish their definitions when used in a systemic context?

  2. Moviedoc,

    Denial (= lying) is but one of many forms of resistance (= strategies) that people will use to avoid admitting a systems stability-threatening and fear-inducing truth to another family member (or to a therapist).

  3. My family fit into those 4 stages perfectly, they're still right in them. My father admits nothing, the family go with the flow, I know in my heart they know it's true but the verbal emotional punches thrown at me for the slightest of comments is huge. I've decided to cut them all off for my own well-being.

  4. Where the abuser in denial, actually believes that the denials, and lies, she created in order to avoid responsibility for her actions, are the truth, then they can not be expected to be appalled by their actions.

    My wife and punch a child in one second, and then in the next second, look into the child's eyes and say that she never hit him. She believes in her lies, in a split second after the lies are created.