It is not only early childhood experiences that cause us to project our unacceptable feelings onto someone else. Friends can have the same effect, as can partners from our previous relationships. This is a process that happens throughout our lives. How many times have we heard someone say, “Treat me for who I am – I am not your former partner”?
The major point to keep in mind is that we project our own problematic feelings onto another person. For example, if we have an issue with jealousy, we will project our own jealousy onto someone else – perceiving that person as the jealous one. This is because we can’t tolerate seeing ourselves as having a problem with jealousy – and it’s easier to attribute it to someone else. In other words, we feel unable to correct the problem in ourselves, so we focus on this issue in the other person. And this happens with a number of problems – anger, dependence, distrust, laziness, and the list goes on. The way out of this, of course, is to become aware of our projections and understand how they affect our relationships.
When couples experience conflict in their relationship, projections are often at the root of the problem. If we are living with our own conflicts and are unable to make any headway in understanding them, it’s as if we look for the problem in the other person. In fact, at a certain level, we may actually seek out partners who have the qualities that we find problematic within ourselves. If we have difficulty with our own controlling behavior, we may seek out partners who do just that to us – people who dominate us. Our partner may not see him- or herself as domineering, but because we need to work out our own problems with the issue of dominance, we search for these qualities in the other person. We take any cue we can from our partner and magnify it. Then we’re able to project our own problem onto the other person, saying it is their fault. By blaming the other person, we protect ourselves from having to come to terms with our own issues. We can safely continue our controlling pattern and blame the other person for having the problem. And the price we pay for this? Relationship conflict.
The healthier option, when projections are causing relationship conflicts, is to increase our awareness of our own internal conflicts and understand how we project these conflicts onto our partner. We can look for examples of our projections in other life situations until we see a pattern. When we have awareness of the problem, we can understand the many ways it influences our behavior – and this can give us some control over the problem. We can then try out new ways of dealing with people. For example, when a person experiences frustration time and again from feeling dominated by others, learning some healthy assertiveness techniques can alleviate the problem.
It is important to understand…
Projections are not at the root of every problem that couples experience. Sometimes one of the partners does indeed have a real behavioral problem. In this case, it is not advisable to try to understand it as a projection, but to see it for what it truly is and to take appropriate measures to change the situation. Working with a professional therapist is a good strategy for addressing relationship conflicts.
Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT
San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.