One of the behaviours most of us have to learn as we grow up is to hold the good and the bad, whether it be with people, within ourselves or in relationships. ‘Splitting’ is the word usually used when a person is unable to hold both good and bad together in themselves. What they do instead is accept the good and reject the bad: we only accept what we perceive are the good bits of ourselves and project onto others the bad bits. Similarly with partners we may only accept their ‘good’ parts and and expect them to change their ‘bad ‘parts. Maturity is when we can accept both good and bad in ourselves and others.
Here is an example of splitting as an internal defense mechanism: Jean, an only child, finds it difficult on occasions to bear her anger. When she grew up displaying anger was unacceptable in her family – she was expected to be the ”good girl”. The reality is she can be nice and also not-so-nice. She can be tolerant and intolerant, loving and hating. However if circumstances arise and she cannot bear the negative feelings she will split them off. The loving and socially acceptable feelings are her whilst the hostile aggressive ones are not her. She has therefore ‘split’ herself into two parts, disowning one of them. The part that is disowned is projected outside onto ‘an-other’ – or perhaps society in general, or a particular group – usually a minority that challenges our equilibrium. This splitting can only be resolved when a person is ready to accept these negative feeling in herself and withdraw the projection.
Similarly, if I make one person into being ’all good’ and another ’all bad’, I am refusing to see either person in their entirety. We all have good and bad aspects to our character and splitting people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is evidence that we are using this mechanism to deflect out own negative sides. Splitting can only be resolved when the ‘self ‘and the ‘other’ can be seen as possessing both good and bad qualities. Having hateful thoughts about the other does not mean that the ‘self’ is all hateful and does not mean that the ‘other person’ is all hateful either.
So why am I writing this post in connection to only child adults?
The fact is, we all have a tendency to split and hopefully with maturity we learn to hold both the good and the bad, but when we don’t, it can have a detrimental affect on our relationships. This is particularly significant when it happens in the ‘triangle’ of the only child – ‘mother, father and only’. This can be exacerbated when their is enmeshment with one parent, and worse still, if one parent has left the parental relationship for any reason. When this occurs one parent is made all good and the other all bad. Although this seems very simplistic it’s is amazing how common this is, and of course not just with us onlies.
An example of this type of splitting is evidenced in the case of John. John is in his thirties and still lives at home with his mother His father left when he was twelve and he has some contact with him but his mother has made the father into the ‘bad person’, whilst the mother is the long-suffering, ‘good person’. The problem is that John feels unable to leave home and become his own person, because he will then be seen by his mother – to be like his father. He will become the ‘bad person’ in his mother’s eyes. In other words her splitting is affecting the way John sees his parents’ relationship and is contributing to his own difficulties in maturing and accepting both his good and shadow sides. (I am using ‘shadow’ here to express not negative aspects of the personality, but all the potential John holds in himself, even though these are not conscious or available to him at the present time).
Of course splitting is common in all types of family separations and even when there are siblings it can happen just as easily. However when there is just one adult-child, for a parent to lean on, the consequences can be much starker. The recent post ‘What do I do?’ is a reminder of how easy it is for an only child adult to feel guilty in developing a life of their own.
Not only is it important to accept the good and bad in ourselves and others – if we are not able to do this we will continue to see life in terms of black and white. What we like is good and what we don’t like is bad. This puts huge strain on any sort of relationship. Splitting is a defense mechanism to protect ourselves from being conscious of the parts of ourselves we don’t like, so it means the negative parts are usually projected onto our partners! We need to own our projections and learn to accept the good and the bad in ourselves and others.