By Linda G. Ritchie, Ph.D.
Relationships are seldom as simple as we would like. They bring out our needs, anxieties and conflicts with people from our past – parents, friends, and former partners. When we enter into a relationship, we expect to be loved just for being who we are. We want a safe zone where our partner values us for our uniqueness. Most relationships start out this way. Why then, does it seem so hard to maintain this blissful state of unconditional love over time?
Our relationships with our partners are colored by our own personal legacies. Many times we find qualities in someone else that we don’t want to accept within ourselves – like blaming our partner for being controlling when we are the one who has the tendency to want to control. Early childhood experiences, experiences with friends, as well as experiences with partners from previous relationships can contribute to us projecting our unacceptable feelings onto someone else.
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. 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.
When couples experience conflict in their relationship, projections are often at the root of the problem. This can happen with a number of problems such as anger, dependence, distrust, laziness, and the list goes on. 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, on an unconscious level, we may actually seek out partners who have the qualities that we find problematic within ourselves. By blaming the other person we protect ourselves from having to come to terms with our own issues. The price we pay for this is relationship conflict.
The process of projection in a relationship is not always one-sided. When both partners are mutually engaged in this process, and this is a common occurrence, it gets complicated. The way out of this 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. Becoming aware of our projections and understand how they affect our relationship with our partner is one step toward resolving the differences and restoring the love.
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