Have you ever wondered why you swing so quickly between loving and hating a person?
Are your relationships characterized by extreme ups and downs?
If so, you might be experiencing what psychologists call splitting – a nefarious defense mechanism that makes it difficult to hold down stable relationships.
What is a Defense Mechanism?
Defense mechanisms are techniques the ego uses to avoid feelings of fear, uncertainty, and shame. Defense mechanisms are unconscious, meaning that we aren’t aware of them or their control over our lives. Essentially, our defense mechanisms “defend” us against unpleasant feelings or situations which our egos perceive as dangerous, helping us to feel better about ourselves and the environment. Ultimately, however, defense mechanisms distort, deny, and/or falsify reality.
What is Splitting?
Splitting is a defense mechanism whereby we split the world into polarities such as good or bad, right or wrong, nice or nasty, and so forth. Essentially, splitting is black and white thinking.
Because we, as humans, struggle to tolerate uncertainty and the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind, we resolve that ambiguity by splitting the issue into two simplified and opposing parts. We then align ourselves with one part and reject the other part.
Splitting Can Maintain or Destroy Relationships
In the emotional arena, splitting helps us to avoid mixed emotions. This is not always a bad thing because it helps us to keep a leash on certain extreme emotions that would otherwise harm our relationships, such as anger.
For example, splitting can be positive when we feel temporary hatred for our spouse, while at the same time feeling love for them. By unconsciously defining hatred as ‘bad,’ and preventing our spouse from facing our wrath, we stop them from suffering.
But splitting can also be toxic and destructive to our relationships. Those who struggle with splitting as one of their primary defense mechanisms cannot tolerate the reality of mixed emotions, and therefore find keeping close relationships hard, or even impossible.
Being unable to tolerate mixed emotions means that your partner will be seen as either an angel or a devil; a loving person or a virulent narcissist. There is no allowance for nuance, subtlety, grey areas, or flaws (and simultaneous points of perfection) within your partner whatsoever.
This tendency to either idealize the other person to the status of a soulmate or condemn them as the spawn of Satan leads to lots of issues and unhappiness. Filtering one’s partner through the lens of good/bad not only ignores their multifaceted authentic nature but also leads to heartbreak and extreme disillusionment when they don’t meet your expectations.
11 Signs You’re Splitting
Want to know whether splitting is sabotaging your relationships? Here are some clues:
- You think about the other person in terms of being “perfect,” “evil,” “angelic,” “demonic,” “saintly,” “narcissistic” (and misdiagnosing them as a narcissist)
- When things go wrong, you always feel horribly “cheated,” “betrayed,” or “screwed over”
- When you have a fight you feel as though the world is crumbling around you or coming to an end
- Most of your relationships have been intense and stormy
- You go through regular cycles of “I love you, I hate you, don’t leave me” in your relationships
- At the beginning of relationships, you tend to idolize your partner and put them on a pedestal
- After disagreements or witnessing flaws in your partner, you begin to lose your respect for them and start to think they’re bad, stupid, pathetic, hateful, or not worthy of your time
- You enter cycles of pushing people away, and then trying to pull them back (push/pull dynamic)
- You crave experiencing strong emotions (love/hate) in your relationships and can’t tolerate neutral or conflicting emotions
- You’re an idealist, and you consciously/unconsciously seek to be with perfect people and in “perfect” relationships
- In fights, you tend to perceive yourself exclusively as the “victim,” and your partner as the perpetrator/wrongdoer
How many of these signs can you relate to?
How to Prevent Splitting From Destroying Your Relationships
If you find yourself agreeing with many of the above signs, don’t panic. Splitting is a common defense mechanism that many people struggle with. (You can read more about its origins in childhood coping strategies here.)
As with any defense mechanism, splitting can be decreased and replaced with healthier forms of behavior through self-awareness. Being conscious of this ingrained behavior is the first step to overcoming it and finding stability in your relationships.
Here are some helpful suggestions:
1. Identify your emotional triggers
Pay attention to the words, actions, tones of voice, or situations that trigger emotional reactions such as outbursts of anger, resentment, finger-pointing etc. from you. Write these down in a private journal whenever they occur and look for patterns and recurring themes. For example, you might find that you’re triggered the most when your partner doesn’t give you the attention you want or you might feel particularly triggered when a certain look appears on your partner’s face. Often environmental factors contribute to us getting triggered, for example, getting poor sleep, stress from work, too many life responsibilities, etc.
2. Tune into your bodily symptoms
How does your body feel when you are being triggered? Does your heart rate elevate, your breath quicken, your palms sweat, your jaw clench? Incorporate mindfulness and/or meditation into your daily routine to help you notice these symptoms. Learn how to take a step back and become self-observant – it takes practice! Notice how your body feels when it starts to split the world into two extremes and write it down in your private journal. Keep in mind that tuning into your body takes practice, so don’t expect to be perfect at doing it overnight.
3. Interrupt your reactions by staying grounded
Once you become self-aware of your triggers and physical reactions, the next step is to learn how to respond in a healthy way. Rewiring this deeply embedded defense mechanism takes time and practice. It requires you to be able to be two steps ahead of your responses and reactions, and take decisive steps to ground and stabilize yourself. One of the simplest ways of staying grounded is to breathe deeply or focus on your breath. The other (which is best used in extremely triggering situations) is to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible. This will give you space to calm down.
Other ways to stay grounded include:
- Feel and notice your feet on the earth
- Drink something hot or cold
- Touch something and notice the sensations (e.g. your watch, purse, wall, driving wheel)
- Anchor yourself into the physical world by paying attention to your surroundings and the colors, smells, movements, and sounds happening around you
- Use a mantra such as “I see both sides,” “I am balanced and grounded,” “I see objectively,” “I am forgiving and open”
4. Train yourself to see the multi-layered nature of people
In a private journal or diary, set yourself the task each day (or however frequently you get triggered by someone) to see ALL sides of them. You won’t be perfect at this from the start, but keep practicing. Divide the page into three columns, “Positive Attributes,” “Neutral,” and “Negative Attributes.” In the positive attributes section, list all of the things you like about the person (it doesn’t just have to be your partner). In the neutral section, list all of the personality characteristics of the person that are neither good or bad. In the negative attributes section, list all of the things about the person you dislike. Be diligent and self-disciplined about this process. The more you do it, the more you will come to see and appreciate the full, authentic, and multi-faceted nature of the people around you.
5. Be honest, open, and willing to prove yourself wrong
Preventing splitting from sabotaging your relationships involves courage and the willingness to be honest, open, and wrong. Don’t let your ego get in the way of your romantic fulfillment. Be willing, and dare I say, look for opportunities to be proven wrong. If you notice yourself putting your partner on a pedestal, try to find something in the past about them that you didn’t like – and vice versa. When you start to perceive your partner in a pure negative way, try to think back to all the beautiful, kind, or caring things he/she has done. Be willing to be wrong about how you feel, and you will progress very far on this journey.
6. Look more deeply into the situation
After arguments with your partner, try to look more deeply into the situation. Was your partner really annoyed with you, or was he/she just trying to expel and unload stress? Was your partner really seeking to hurt your feelings, or were they just trying to protect themselves and their fragile self-esteem? Is your partner really a selfish prick, or does he just struggle to manage his time and responsibilities? Looking beyond your feelings and the immediate surface appearance of the situation will help you to gain a deeper perspective.
Other ways to prevent splitting from undermining your relationships include:
- Refusing to discuss things that trigger you until you feel mentally prepared
- Exploring your projections – what insecurities are you projecting onto your partner?
- Keep affirming that it is OK to have flaws, it’s OK to not agree all the time, it’s OK (and normal) to be a mixture of good, bad, and neutral traits
- Seeking out a trained therapist who can help you further explore these difficulties
I hope this advice has helped you out! Let me know any thoughts or experiences you have on this topic in the comments.