Two round mirrors side by side - Why You Might Think The Worst About Your Partner and What To Do About It - Sandra Harewood

Why You Might Think The Worst About Your Partner And What To Do Next

Projection and projective identification have a significant role to play in relationship breakdown.

Before we dive deep into why that is, here’s a reminder for you to read last week’s post. Last week’s blog post was about how you can see your partner as someone from your past without even realising it. And then how you treat your partner in ways that have nothing to do with them.

You can check it out here if you haven’t read that post.

This week we are going to talk about projection and projective identification.

Projection isn’t just for narcissists.

Projection plays a crucial role in controlling and abusive narcissistic relationships. A narcissistically wounded person might annoyingly accuse their partner of being negative or disloyal, for example, but not see these qualities in themselves.

But actually, I think that it is a mistake to believe that projection only occurs in these kinds of relationships with people with this specific personality disorder. Much like transference, we all project and are unconscious that we are doing it.

That said, most of us have the opportunity to develop the capacity to be reflective and curious about our actions. As a result, we can think about how our behaviour impacts our relationships and acknowledge what we want to do about it.

Projection is different from transference in that instead of mistaking our partner for someone else, e.g. a parent, we see a reflection of ourselves.

It’s as if we are looking in the mirror.

So what are we seeing?

Taking a look at our shadow

When we project those same characteristics, whether positive or negative, we observe them in our partner. We see the parts of ourselves that we have disowned. The features in us that, as children, we were conditioned to believe as not okay. Those parts pushed into what Carl Jung referred to as our Shadow. However, we are oblivious to those parts of ourselves.

Interestingly we often attract partners who reflect our Shadow. When we project positive things onto our partners, this is one of the reasons we find so attractive.

So, for example, if we have repressed our creativity, we might be attracted and value that creativity in another person without realising that what we admire is our own capacity to be creative.

If we have always wanted to run a business but tell ourselves we can’t, we might be attracted to and support those qualities in someone else. So you start a relationship with an entrepreneur, invest a lot of time and energy helping a partner to develop their side hustle, and do not cultivate the skills that might expand your business knowledge. It always remains a dream.

The same is true with qualities that we might describe as negative. So if you describe yourself as a quiet, easygoing person and feel embarrassed by your partner’s anger outbursts, that might tell you something about your relationship with anger and what you avoid expressing.

This is where projective identification comes into play; first described by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein.

A projective identification example

Projective identification is when we begin to identify with the projected traits. This is important, particularly in long-term relationships, because you can lose your sense of self in time.

You might not feel like yourself and even stop acting like your usual self. It’s as if you are absorbing the other person’s attributes.

So projective identification is the next step in the projection process, where you experience the projected traits of your partner and vice versa.

Then things begin to get a little bit more complicated.

Whose stuff belongs to who?

Here’s a projective identification example.

Suppose you have a complex relationship with your mother. Despite your best efforts to reconnect and build a closer relationship, you have been estranged for several years. Your mother would like to meet you and the rest of your family. Out of the blue, she contacts you, and you agree to meet.

When you tell your husband about your mother’s request, he seems disinterested and doesn’t share your excitement. He tells you that your mum is a self-interested woman with a nerve showing up after all this time. You don’t know why your partner is being so critical of your mother and not pleased that there is an opportunity to heal family wounds. A long argument takes place, and you both feel hurt, misunderstood and let down.

What just happened?

Disentangling the projection identification

So first, we must remember that not all arguments are due to projective identification.

But, if we think of it in terms of projective identification, your partner expresses the anger and ambivalence that you have not yet identified with.

What anger and ambivalence?

Some of you might be worried that you might be let down again, but you cannot conceive of it because of the excitement. Maybe you are angry about the years of rejection, which gives way to the excitement of the reunion. You don’t feel it, but your husband does.

Maybe this is something here for you to consider alongside those feelings of excitement.

In this case, the feelings about your mother have been projected onto your husband. He then identifies with and expresses those feelings.

When Zero to 100 = projective identification

Couples often come to therapy saying they have arguments that escalate from zero to 100 in seconds when they are not talking about anything that seems particularly significant. These kinds of arguments cause a lot of perplexities.

This is potentially a sign of projective identification. Again, I say potential because not every argument is down to this, but it is crucial to put it in the mix when reflecting on marital problems.

But such arguments often leave a trail of confusion, of ‘what happened there?‘ We might be confused because the unconscious is at play. Repeated unresolved arguments are another clue that something is a play under the surface.

Couples counselling is so vital in unpicking these unconscious strands.  It is hard for a couple to do that on their own.

As we are often attracted to people who remind us of our parents for our partners, this can be a double whammy. We unconsciously see them as our parents, ask them to be our parents, and ask them to hold the feelings we have about our parents alongside holding parts about us our parents told us weren’t okay.

That’s a lot of people in the room and big expectations of each other. All without having said a word.

The Shadow

Next week in the final part of the series, I’m going to go into a little more detail about the Shadow.

I will also give you some tools and strategies to start working with the unconscious in your relationship.

Over To You

If you’re stuck and curious about projective identification or think you have some projective identification examples from your marriage and want to explore the impact, get in touch for a clarity session.  I offer video sessions online via a secure platform. 

Or call me today on 07535 864836.

Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.


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© Sandra Harewood 2022

About Sandra

Soul Centred couples therapist, counsellor and Jungian Shadow Work coach Sandra Harewood specialise in working with women and couples stuck at a crossroads in their marriage. Relationships are precious; this is your chance to begin a new journey and experience the connection and intimacy you most deeply desire.

Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore creative solutions to their difficulties and deepen their self-knowledge to discover what keeps them ‘stuck’ in their marriages to create and experience extraordinary relationships.