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Understanding Projection

The success of our lives and relationships rely on our ability to understand and respond to the events that shape us.

How do you respond to situations that are outside of your control?

How do you respond to situations that you can control?

The management tools that we develop through adulthood and marriage are tested in times of conflict, and how we react can tell us a lot about the strength of our management or coping mechanisms, or highlight their complete failure.

What coping mechanisms exist in your life?

I encountered a situation recently where the failings of a group of people were clearly evident, and one where a valuable lesson can be learned. One example of a failed response to crisis is misdirected anger, known otherwise as transference, or more specifically, projection. 

The definition of projection, at least by counseling definitions, refers to the projection of feelings, emotions, or motivations into another person without realizing your reaction is more about you than it is about the other person.

Let's put this theory of projection in context. The situation I encountered recently involved a group of married women that had let themselves and others down by being bitchy and divisive, creating conflict where there needn't be. Have you ever caught a naughty child doing something they shouldn't be doing and observed their reaction? It's quite comical. Looking at projection, a child would throw a tantrum at being caught misbehaving, and the same thing happened to this group in question.

These people were nothing special, just very ordinary people, and the course of action they took in hurting others was unprovoked, spiteful, and morally reprehensible. But looking past their actions, their reaction was more of interest to me. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions like a grown-up would do and apologize or feel remorse for what they had done, they instead went on the attack, blaming others and seeking justification for their actions, choosing to act as though they were victims of circumstances outside of their control. It may have been deliriously convincing to them, but they weren't fooling anyone else. It made me sad to witness, but at the same time made me wonder how happy these people truly are and what motivated them to project their anger outward in such a fashion.

Projection and transference are caused by unmet emotional needs, and this is none more so prevalent when the person in question is in a crisis of some sort, either personal or marriage-related. Creating trouble where there is none may be indicative of a much deeper personal trauma.

Let's take a look at your marriage. Is the same thing happening to you? Is your partner feeling unfulfilled, angry, and you don't know why? Do you feel as though you are getting the blame for things that you haven't done or have no control over?

It's tempting in a marriage to simply take the blame for whatever you have been accused of, apologize, and try your best to move on. In fact, I hear from a number of people, almost eager to take responsibility for the mess, hoping that in doing so they can start healing the marriage. I don't encourage people to do that at all, for several reasons.

The first is that unless you understand what you have done wrong, rushing into an apology has very little meaning. The key to a successful marriage is in understanding what the issues are, understanding the part each of you have played in living through the issues, and to find meaning from your actions, remedy them, and move forward.

The second reason is that your partner's unhappiness may actually have nothing to do with you. Sure, they may be directing their anger towards you, but it may be symptomatic of a personal breakdown or unhappiness at work as much as it may be about the marriage.

Sure, their anger may be directed at you, but is it really about you? It may be about getting older and still being childless, it may be about your partner being depressed and not knowing what to do about it, it may be an unfulfilling sex life that hasn't been spoken about, or it may be about some historical childhood wound that they are unable to let go. It may even be self-esteem issues or a psychosis that needs to be treated.

Whatever the reason, it's important to see that projection may be your partner's coping mechanism or way of dealing with it. Sure it's the wrong way to go about it. That's why it's important to examine the response and look past the initial justification for the deeper, more meaningful issues. Focus on the motivation for the outward display of emotion, not the action itself. How can you help your partner break the pattern of projection?

Start by resisting the temptation to take immediate responsibility for their unhappiness. It may be about much more than anything you could have done.

People who don’t recognize the difference between past and present, between the individual and the relationship, between their own culpability and others can end up in the same twisted cycle, over and over.

Next time you are in conflict, scratch beneath the surface. It may be the first step forward in saving your marriage.