The Role of Defensive Emotional Distancing in Loneliness of Offenders with Substance Use Disorders

Sanja Stojadinovic


Background: The abilities to effectively regulate emotions and establish meaningful interpersonal relationships are considered to be crucial for overall mental health. The current study aimed at exploring the relationship between the intrapersonal and interpersonal components of self-differentiation and the feeling of loneliness in offenders with substance use disorders.

Method: Participants were 80 male offenders with opiate use disorders hospitalized at the Special Prison Hospital in Belgrade. Data were collected by using self-report Differentiation of Self Inventory and UCLA Loneliness Scale. In analyzing the data, Pearson product-moment correlation analysis and multiple regression analysis were employed.

Results: As has been hypothesized, results show that loneliness is associated with a lower level of self-differentiation. The most prominent role in loneliness plays emotional cutoff. Since close relationships are interpreted as threatening, defensive emotional distancing protects from further negative, painful relationship experiences, and traumatization, but, as a consequence, leaves a person deprived of meaningful social contacts needed to fulfill the basic need for connectedness.

Conclusions: Long-term use of behavioral and emotional defense mechanisms, such as distancing and denial, along with the exaggerated facade of independence and self-sufficiency, often seen in forensic clients seems to conceal chronic feelings of loneliness and longing for meaningful and emotionally fulfilling human contact. Adopting adaptive emotion regulation strategies may be an important mechanism for alleviating loneliness in offenders with substance use disorders, and probably, lead to decreasing the use of substances in an attempt to modulate emotions.


Self-differentiation; Loneliness; Substance use disorders; Defense mechanisms; Offenders.

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