Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and one of the most influential thinkers in the field of psychology today. Among his contributions to the field is the formulation of what are called ‘defense mechanisms’. In lay terms, defense mechanisms are internal “security guards” inside of us whose goal is to protect us from experiencing pain and discomfort; and the security guards have different weapons to fight off unwanted guests (AKA negative feelings and thoughts). Defense mechanisms are sometimes labeled in a negative light—especially denial– but the reality is that when we look closely, we can see that there is a protective agenda to defense mechanisms, which is why it can be hard to address them.
Compartmentalization can be a way that we avoid pain, and for many relationship and sexual issues, compartmentalization is what enables a couple to carry on for months and years despite there being something missing or deeply hurting. For our patients with unconsummated relationships due to vaginismus, I tend to see a pattern of compartmentalization set in. It’s almost like the issue—and all the pain, feelings, and thoughts—get placed in a box and stuck on a shelf. There is an effort to try to pretend it’s not there or try to focus on the positive—“everything else in our relationship is great except for this”– but the box’s existence and the knowledge of what’s inside continues to create a hum in the background of the rest of the relationship, and it gets louder as the years go on.
Perhaps compartmentalization is one of the reasons that it takes time for people get help; they are scared to open the box. But when the box is opened, we can work on the issue and there can be resolution and healing. I have seen that for many patients, they not only felt better after getting help for their problem, but they realized how much the need to compartmentalize had maintained a certain strain on their relationship and well-being. So if you have that hum in the background, a sense that there is something in your life that you’re trying to keep in a box because you’re scared, you’re a normal human being. But keep an open mind for the potential benefits of what it would it feel like to no longer try to pretend the box isn’t there.