11/13/2013 03:12 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Misguided Optimism: Living With Those Who Live in Denial

I hear about it weekly -- clients coming to my office, being driven to their wit's end, by parents, husbands, wives, partners and children whom I describe as Misguided Optimists. As we all know, Denial is not only a river in Egypt. And the defense mechanism can be a healthy one: As an example, when our teenage son or daughter takes our family car for the first time, we cannot constantly focus on the dangers he or she will face. On the other hand, Misguided Optimists either cannot or will not face the grave dangers before them that must be faced.

Six months ago the mother of a 25-year-old daughter consulted me. She was feeling ill and desperate, as she explained that her daughter comes to family dinners with makeup caked on bruises, obviously there because her husband, who her family begged her not to marry, beats her. "But Shirley will not consider leaving him," my client explained, holding back tears. "She just keeps telling me that things will improve. Of course, she totally denies that she is beaten. Instead, she says that the bruises are due to a skin condition, and that the makeup is medication."

Then there is the husband and father who consulted me because, Brenda, his wife of two years, refuses to get help for her alcoholism, a condition that is "wrecking each of our lives." My client explained that at this point he fears going to work because he feels, "my wife will drink herself into a coma in my absence." He continues: "When she is really drunk, she goes on and on about having a baby, which of course we as a couple could not deal with."

There is the couple I have worked with for two years. Their son, Brian, is a drug addict, but his mother cannot stop her husband from giving him money each time he asks for it, telling his dad that he just needs money to find an apartment and then find work. Of course, predictably, Brian then uses the money for drugs. Brian's mom knows well that Brian will have to face his life and his illness, if necessary falling hard and then hopefully seeking help. But Brian's dad says again and again that he "will not abandon his son."

Louise's parents consulted me because their 15-year-old daughter was involved with one she called her "first true love." In Louise's dad's words, "Our daughter only sees what she calls charm and good looks. She does not see any problem that Dan, also 15, has dropped out of prep school and spends all of his spare time at bars and shooting ranges. He is into drugs and booze in a heavy and frightening way." Her mom adds that Dan "is from a wealthy family and has money galore to spend. His parents are never around, and he does whatever he wishes, whenever he wishes." Louise's parents have tried everything they can to point out Dan's limitations to their daughter, from reasoning with her to not allowing her to leave their home. Nothing has worked.

What can one do when faced with a loved one who shows chronic Misguided Optimism? How can we communicate? How can we help when one we care about is in total denial about a dangerous relationship, or a potentially explosive and life threatening situation?

Although there is not one general answer, there is hope. Following are examples of how the tincture of time. patience, and insight brought change and authentic optimism to the four families described above.

The client who was physically abused was beaten so badly a month ago that she was hospitalized. Although in the past Shirley had refused either to see a therapist specializing in abuse or consult a domestic abuse hotline for a resource offering help, this beating was a wake up call. She is now in a shelter for abused women receiving the quality help she needs. She is also seeking a divorce. Further, Shirley has told her mother that her constancy and availability made all of the difference in helping her to finally face reality and not return to her husband who promised her that he would never again beat her if she returned home.

The newly-married alcoholic wife agreed to enter couples' therapy once her husband said he was going to leave her if she did not get help for herself. One evening he packed his suitcase and left for a hotel, placing the location of the nearest AA on her bureau. The next day, not only did Brenda drag her hungover self to that meeting, but also she asked her husband for my number, and I referred them both to a couples' therapist.

A parallel decision prompted change in the the life of Brian's family. Brian's mom finally told her husband that she could not live with his totally irrational belief that he was helping their son, and explained that constantly giving Brian money that he used for drugs was making her physically and emotionally ill. When she moved out, her husband began to take therapy seriously. Although each case of pathological optimism is due to different reasons, in this case, there were painful truths about himself that Brian's dad had not wanted to face. These truths involved his cruelties to a younger mentally challenged brother who died of heart disease at the age of 12. Brian's dad compensated for past behavior that shamed him by refusing to offer his son the truths and limits that were his only hope for recovery. In his words, "I offered the kindness and generosity to my son that I should have offered to my brother." At present, after several months in rehab, Brian is determined to stay clean. He and his parents have forged their first fulfilling and healthy relationship.

Finally, in unison Louise's parents told her: "We do not like or respect the way that Dan is living his life, but we see that you are determined to be with him. You know well the values we have in our family, but you have to see things clearly for yourself. We have decided that you will, of course, have a curfew, but aside from that we will keep our mouths shut about this relationship." Within two months, Louise realized that Dan was a "complete bore" and that she no longer even found him handsome.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.