Have you ever found yourself having the same argument with your significant other, over and over again? Maybe you've even had the same repetitive argument with multiple romantic partners over the years.
Why does this keep happening?
One possibility is projective identification. You're probably familiar with Sigmund Freud's concept of psychological "projection," in which a person attributes things about themselves onto someone else. For example, a narcissist might accuse others of being self-focused while failing to see it in herself.
Projective identification takes this process a big step further, says psychologist and couples therapist Dr. Polly Young-Eisendrath, by actually evoking the projected traits in the other person. She takes a deep look at projective identification in her recent book, Love Between Equals: Relationship as a Spiritual Path, which we discussed on the Think Act Be podcast.
I often find that projective identification is a bit hard to grasp, so let me offer an example. Suppose you have a somewhat conflicted relationship with your father. Today you had a conversation with your dad, who asked you to change your holiday travel plans to spend more time with your family of origin.
When you tell your partner about your dad's request, they become annoyed and say your dad is being "pushy." You don't know why your partner is always so critical of your dad, and you get upset. A long argument ensues, ending with tears and hurt feelings.
What happened? There are many possible explanations, many of which don't involve projective identification. But if it were a factor, your unrecognized frustrations toward your dad influenced your significant other (unconsciously) to feel and express that frustration.
So your feelings about your dad have been projected onto your partner, who then identifies with and expresses those feelings.
According to theorists in this area, almost all relationships have at least some degree of projective identification, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. We can project positive things onto our partners, which can be a part of why we find them so attractive.
Where Do Our Projections Come From?
As with many concepts developed by Freud and his followers, projective identification is believed to have its roots in our past. "You begin to experience your partner the way you experienced your mother, your father, your older sibling," said Young-Eisendrath—"the way you experienced something when you were a young and powerless child and had no control over it."
People often find that they're attracted to partners who resemble their childhood caregivers—typically a parent. For example, a person might choose partners who are controlling and unpredictable like their mother was. While it's possible that the person keeps choosing partners who are like their mother, it could also be that they're projecting their childhood experiences onto each new partner.
"Another way to think of it is that each person is directing an internal theater," said Young-Eisendrath, "and the other person doesn't know the play. But the director is directing in such a way as to get results that prove to the director that the other person is playing that part, and thinks and feels that way."
As a result, each person finds evidence that their partner is cast in the role they've been assigned—but it's a self-fulfilling process. It often works in both directions, Young-Eisendrath explained, with each partner projecting their own fears, beliefs, and histories onto the other.
One note of caution: Not every instance of couple conflict, repetitive argument, and so forth can be attributed to projective identification. Taken to its extreme, one might blame an abused partner for "evoking" the abuse. This would be an incorrect application of the concept, in my view.
How to Recognize Projective Identification
It's often hard to spot projective identification because it happens unconsciously—you aren't aware you're projecting, and your partner doesn't know they're identifying with it. Thus we have to look for clues that might point to it.
You're Stuck in a Loop
"One symptom is repetitive conflict," said Young-Eisendrath, "where people keep saying the same things, and things never seem to move on." She noted that these arguments can be mistaken for straightforward "problems in communication," when in reality the problem may be an unconscious emotional process.
"This issue of projective identification is really the only problem that couples suffer from over time," she said, "if they are generally healthy, intelligent, engaged people as individuals."
Another sign is feeling upset with your partner, and perhaps not even knowing why. On a surface level, it might not be obvious why you feel angry, hurt, resentful, or other painful emotions, but you can't shake the feeling that your partner has mistreated you.
You also might be surprised by the intensity of your feelings in response to a minor slight by your partner. For example, they didn't respond to your text message for two hours and you feel like your world is crumbling. Seemingly "overblown" reactions can indicate that things from earlier in your life are resurfacing.
Confusion is another common indicator of projective identification. You might be confused by your partner's reactions to you, or by your own. You may wonder and worry about the frequent repetitive arguments you're having, even though you obviously care about each other. And as suggested above, perhaps you're bewildered by how quickly things can get heated between you and your partner, from the slightest provocation.
How to Deal with Projective Identification
Thankfully, there are productive ways to handle projective identification so it doesn't color every interaction between you and your significant other.
Recognize it. The first step, of course, is becoming aware that it happens, using the signs discussed above as clues.
Be curious. Become curious about your interactions with your partner. What deeper dynamics might you have been missing? What elements from your respective pasts are likely to have a role in your present relationship?
Slow down. "The only way to get out of this is to pull the whole thing apart and slow it down," said Young-Eisendrath. By slowing down we're more likely to interrupt automatic and well-worn patterns in our relationship, and to have the space to observe what's actually happening.
Practice mindfulness. Young-Eisendrath describes mindfulness as the "skill of being able to bring concentration and equanimity to your perceptions and experience." Through mindful awareness, you can more clearly observe yourself and your partner, with openness and curiosity.
Check your understanding. Paraphrasing what your partner says helps you to slow down, engaging "more prefrontal cortex and less limbic activity," according to Young-Eisendrath. It also gives you a chance to see if you've actually heard the other person. "When you're in projective identification, it will be shocking how little you've actually heard," she said. It's hard to hear someone else "when your own mind is rehearsing what you want to say or the ways you've been hurt—it's like your ears are blocked."
Consider therapy. Some couples may find a professional to be very helpful as they work through their conflict, communication, and projective identification. It can be invaluable, as Young-Eisendrath noted, to have a neutral third party play "witness to what you're doing."
If you suspect that projective identification has played a big role in your romantic relationship, take heart—there's good reason for hope. "If they can sort out projective identification," said Young-Eisendrath, "they can solve all of those other issues — parenting, finances, sex, negotiating leisure time and household decisions. If they can sort this one thing out, they can trust each other to solve the other things."
The full conversation on the Think Act Be podcase with Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D. is available here: How to Grow in Your Loving Relationships.