31 Jan Projective Identification: Appreciating My Role in Relational Conflict

Posted at 9:57 pm in Couples Therapy by jlbworks

As Terrence Real has written, “We marry our unfinished business.” How, we may ask, does this happen? Our experiences in infancy and childhood with parental figures leaves all of us with residues of frustrations, hurts, and unmet longings, residues that we unconsciously carry into our lives with our marital partners. When we fall in love, we don’t realize that we are unconsciously choosing someone who will later arouse those same frustrations we had with parental figures. As Harville Hendrix has written in Getting The Love You Want, we either 1) Pick a partner who has similarities in character to a difficult parental figure; or 2) Project onto our partner that s/he is acting in a similar way; or 3) (unconsciously) we Provoke our partners to act in a similar way. This is where it gets really tricky! It certainly requires some humility on my part to recognize that I may be unconsciously provoking my partner to act in exactly those ways that are most difficult for me to handle. The psychological term for this provoking behavior is “projective identification.”

Peter Kramer, the psychiatrist who became famous for his book Listening To Prozac, later wrote another book, Should You Leave?, which helps us to understand the operation of projective identification in our relationships. Kramer writes, “It was Melanie Klein who yoked two Freudian concepts to coin “projective identification.” She focused on circumstances in which a person induces a disliked part of the self to appear in another person, usually an intimate, thereby at once getting rid of and remaining in touch with what is repudiated. Projective identification is Klein’s account of a common way that people keep the images of emotionally charged relationships alive. When men don’t marry their mother, they make whomever they marry into her.” (p. 211)

Kramer elaborates on how this occurs as follows: “Less flexible couples respond to disappointed expectations by engaging in destructive forms of mutual projective identification. Each member of the couple will behave in just such a way as to induce in the partner exaggerated features of a frustrating parent. By goading the husband, the wife helps create a violent man, a parody of her forceful father. The husband, in frustrating the wife, replicates his hypercritical mother…through mutual projective identification, partners are made into hurtful parodies of parents; this transformation establishes a destructive relationship that has great stability, in part because each spouse embodies unacceptable traits that, so long as the marriage persists, need not be experienced or dealt with as parts of the self. Many aspects of self and other remain hidden. The troubled marriage is the domain of altered creatures created by mutual projection.” (p. 215)

Kramer then adds, “As a perspective on couples, the idea of mutual projective identification is workable because it goes beyond the ostensibly blameworthy traits of each individual. The approach suggests the likelihood of joint responsibility for any trait and then asks an illuminating question: What drama does that trait serve?…The most distressing aspects of your partner provide a starting point for considering your needs and fantasies. Your own hard-to-change, provocative behavior speaks to your partner’s needs and fantasies. You reap what you sow.” (p. 216) In summary, Kramer states, “Some of what you complain about in your partner is of your own making.” (p. 220)

Recognizing that projective identification operates in most all relationships helps us to develop more humility and compassion toward our partners. It is not simply that my partner has a personality that is difficult for me to handle, although that may also be true. In fact, I share responsibility for my partner’s traits and behaviors. I am unconsciously provoking my partner to act in ways that may drive me crazy! Knowing this is the case helps me to continue to work on my tendency toward blaming or defensiveness, as well as on my self-differentiation, which has been defined as “resistance to the interpersonal contagion of anxiety (or anger.)” Kramer writes, “Differentiation of self is very largely the capacity to resist, and to resist employing, projective identification.” (p. 216)