Leo and Catherine have been together for slightly over a year. They have a strong attraction to each other, are both sincerely committed to meditation and working on themselves, and enjoy nourishing physical intimacy. But they fight continually and often their fighting becomes so intense that it moves to verbal violence. Then both feel hopeless, angry, hateful, and want to end the relationship. This kind of swing from love to hate is extreme in their case but definitely not uncommon in many relationships.
It is important to explore how and why we can move so dramatically from feeling love and attraction to our partner to being closed, hurt, angry, resigned, and even wanting to hurt the other person. This is called “splitting.”
When we go deeper into a love relationship or even a friendship, we are bound to get triggered. We get triggered when we feel unloved or disrespected, when an important need is not being met and consciously (or unconsciously) we firmly believe that it should be met.
This might be when we experience being ignored, unappreciated, or rejected. It might happen when we are not getting as much affection, caring, or sex than we would like. It might happen when the other person behaves in a way that provokes us to feel hurt, disrespected, or invaded. Our old wounds get triggered and activated. Suddenly, we switch from perceiving the other person to being a safe and loving friend to experiencing a threat. And when we see and feel a part of the other person’s personality that triggers us to feel rejected, abused, or unsafe, we might easily forget that we ever loved this person.
We can easily become convinced that what we are seeing and feeling in this moment in our partner or friend is all there is about him or her. We can become overwhelmed with our feelings of hurt and unsafety, and in reaction, we close. And mostly likely, we want to retaliate, pull away, or end the relationship.
This kind of extreme emotional switch has its roots in our childhood. Most if not all of us may have experienced that at times our parents or caretakers were loving and supportive, but at other times, they might have been angry, rejecting and critical, even abusive. As a child, we cannot understand that our parents can be both loving and unloving. We see things in black and white.
Now as adults, when we get taken over by our wounded self, we do the same. And the problem is that often we don’t realize that this phenomenon is an essential aspect of any relationship. We might have the fantasy that we will always experience the other person in a positive light, or the belief that if we don’t, then it means that we have picked the wrong person. What we might not realize is that our negative experience of the other person is predictable with any person we come close to, and it’s an important growth opportunity.
For several reasons.
Let’s go back to Leo and Catherine. When we ask them why they fight, they both tell us that it is because of how the other behaves. He says when she gets jealous, she turns into “a crazy bitch”, attacks and yells at him, accuses him of being unfaithful, and won’t leave him alone. Furthermore, she often assumes that she is much more “evolved” and aware than he is and has done much more inner emotional work. From her side, she claims that when he doesn’t get the attention or approval that he wants, he gets aggressive and verbally abusive.
What is a healthy way to work with this phenomenon of “splitting?”
Here are some helpful steps to take:
- Realize that it is going to happen and that it is part of our wounded self that fantasizes that the other person will be a certain way and behave in a certain way. Then gets disappointed and hurt when things are different.
- Notice with awareness when you have switched from a positive to a negative image of the other person.
- Identify what you are now believing about him or her.
- Notice the wound that has been triggered – abandonment, shame, mistrust, or fear.
- See if you can trace this experience back to earlier times, especially childhood.
- Notice when you feel this way about the other person, can you recall other times when you feel differently and if so, how? Can you hold both experiences of the other person in your heart?
- Notice how you behave when you slip into this negative projection and what would be a way that could be more loving and effective?
We have helped Leo to see how he might be provoking Catherine to feel jealous and to learn to become more sensitive to her fears without giving up his right to relate to others in friendship. We have also helped him to understand that when she says she is more “advanced’ that he is, that it provokes his shame wound and it is something he needs to get more in touch with. And to share why he gets triggered because of his shame when she says things like this. We helped Catherine to recognize that her response to suspicions of infidelity causes her to attack him and leave him feeling that he must defend himself. Instead, she can learn to be with her fears in these moments, know that her abandonment wound is triggered, and share this with him in a vulnerable way. And she can learn to not make comments about being more advanced than him, but instead to feel the impulse to say that and go deeper to feel what provoked her…maybe some shame or fear or even abandonment.
When we connect with the feelings underneath the reactions we are coming closer to ourselves and closer to love. Something begins to relax inside and it is then easier to begin to see the other person the way he or she is.
Sometimes, we get lost and entrenched in our negative experience of the other person partly because this is what we have known from our past and we expect that sooner or later, this is what we will get. It is deeply imprinted in our belief and feeling of what will happen if we come close to someone.
In a certain sense it is also safe to stay in the belief that the other is at fault and it isn’t safe to open. In that way we don’t have to look deeper at our own fear of intimacy and we can stay busy with the drama.
When we become aware of our splitting, we can anticipate that it will happen as we open deeper to the other person, and then begin to question our beliefs in the moments we get triggered rather than getting lost in our emotions and then feeling justified in our reactions.
The phenomenon of splitting is a universal experience of intimate relating. There will be times in all significant relationships when we will see and feel the other person in a negative way. Then we lose perspective and the automatic tendency is to blame. That is the old way. The new way, the more conscious way, is to see that it is a mirror of our own story, one we can learn from, and then we can discover more loving and effective ways to deal with it.
From that place of maturity, we can begin to see the other and ourselves the way we are. Not in black and white, but with many shades and nuances.