Intimate Partners - Page 3
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rojective identification is a defensive activity of the ego which serves to modify a person's perceptions of his intimate partner while reciprocally altering his image of himself.

When, for example, a man has been struggling with an underlying, denied, and dissociated depression, he may find himself attracted to—and marry—the very woman who can give expression to this aspect of his internal world for him. He may then play out the role of the logical, unemotional, unneedy husband of the openly vulnerable, dependent, moody, often frankly despairing wife. The problem is, however, that the same underlying motivations that led him to select that mate—as part of an effort to relieve his own anxiety—will inevitably result in his wanting her to remain depressed at the same time that he finds her recurrent depressions unbearable. This is the equivalent of his wanting her to be tall and short, or fat and thin, at the same time.

Predictably, the more he projects his repudiated, intolerable feelings of dejection and sadness onto his wife, the more he is likely to dissociate his own self from them—and from her as well. She will then be carrying the depression for the pair of them, but the more she does what he at an unconscious level wants her to do for him, the more their mutual estrangement and tension will grow. For the husband, both in flight from and wanting to connect with his internal experiences, will induce her to express his dissociated feelings and emotions but also criticize her roundly for doing so.

It may be assumed that the wife in such a projective-identification system has agreed to carry those aspects of her mate's inner experience which he cannot consciously tolerate and, further, has given aspects of her internal world into his safekeeping. Perhaps it is her competence and independence that he must hold for her—because she learned, early in her life, that it would be impossible to be both independent and nurtured in an emotional relationship, and that it was therefore necessary to choose one or the other. Only when one becomes aware of the collusive arrangements that couples make does it become apparent that there are no victims and villains—or saints and devils—in marriage. There are, instead, only active colluders, each carrying a disclaimed area of the spouse's internal territory as part of a mutually agreed upon, unconscious arrangement.

Although it is true that projections of the internal self (and identifications with the partner's projections) are probably always going to play some role in close emotional attachments, the degree of mutual gratification that a couple experiences will depend greatly upon how much of the personality of each partner is being disposed of in this fashion. It will also depend, as Lily Pincus and Christopher Dare have observed, upon "the degree of violence with which the mental act is carried out, and the rigidity with which it is maintained."

They write:

The hardworking wife, who keeps herself, her home and her children meticulously clean and runs [around complaining] about her dirty drunkard of a husband, may well be worried about the bad, dirty, aspects of herself, perhaps her "bad" sexuality. It may be this anxiety about herself which makes it so important for her to keep all the "'bad" things firmly fixed onto the husband. Her demands for help may express, on one level, an unconscious striving to relieve her of her guilt about herself which has been intolerably increased by her destructiveness towards her husband.
Similarly, they add, "the rigid man with high moral standards who is desperately anxious about his slovenly, promiscuous or delinquent wife may need her to express similar drives of his own which he has never dared to face and has repressed into the unconscious." What is notable in these examples is how strikingly different the marital partners appear to be—so different that one would question why they ever married in the first place. One mate is all cleanliness and order, the other totally dirty and disreputable.

Once one realizes, however, that in such situations a trade-off of projections has occurred—an unconscious deal has been worked out in which one partner has agreed carry the "badness" and one to carry the "goodness" of the couple, as if they were parts of an undifferentiated whole organism—what needs to happen becomes apparent. Each member of the couple must re-own and take responsibility for those aspects of his or her internal world which are being put onto the partner.

This means learning to experience ambivalence: the good and the bad within the other, and the good and bad within the self.

It involves, in plain words, seeing one's goodness and badness, one's craziness and sanity, one's adequacy and inadequacy, one's depression and elation, and so forth, as aspects of internal experience, rather than splitting off one side of any of these dichotomies and being able to perceive it only as it exists in the mate.

Learning to contain one's ambivalent feelings about self and about other people is a part of growing up; it is a developmental achievement. Many people cannot, however, acknowledge their feelings of badness, weakness, inadequacy, incompetence, or anger, or certain other proscribed feelings. Or, as I noted earlier, it may be that it is strength, competence, or other positive qualities that must be kept out of conscious awareness—for the person has learned that these qualities and attitudes will threaten the existence of a vitally needed emotional relationship.

Emotional Deals: The Hysterical Marriage

o connubial relationship is, I think, more celebrated in the clinical literature than that of the remote, unavailable husband and his desperately frustrated, perhaps frankly depressed wife. Should either partner in such a marriage seek psychiatric attention, the male partner is very likely to be diagnosed as an "obsessive-compulsive" and the female as suffering from a "hysterical personality disorder. " Actually, the latter label has recently been altered (although the content of the diagnosis remains pretty much unchanged). It is now known as a "histrionic personality disorder."

The most recent version of the standard psychiatric reference book nevertheless states that a histrionic personality disorder can be viewed as behavior that is "a caricature of femininity" whether it happens to manifest itself in a woman or in a man. The histrionic person is "superficially warm and charming," but also "egocentric, self-indulgent, and inconsiderate of others." She or he is, moreover, "dependent, helpless, constantly seeking reassurance," and may be given to indulgence in frequent "flights into romantic fantasy." She is a love addict, in need of a continual supply of affectionate attention.

The histrionic individual has poor control over her impulses and tends to say and do things that might more have been left unsaid and undone. The partner, however is her polar opposite—overly orderly, somewhat inflexible, and often lacking in spontaneity. He is always apprehensive lest something unexpected happen and his anxious sense of mastery over himself and his environment be endangered. While she is sick for love, he has very little to give her; the more she craves affection, the more she threatens to overwhelm him.

In an article titled "The Hysterical Marriage," Dr. Jurg Willi says that the mate of the "hysterical" woman is usually, "unremarkable, taciturn ... shy, and almost overly well-adapted and thoughtful or respectful. In contrast to his often extravagant wife, he is pedestrian, pale but sturdy, the 'good guy' type."

"In contrast to their wives, most husbands of hysterical women rarely dated because they feared rejection," he writes. These men, he says, seem to adopt a submissive attitude toward women; their own exhibitionistic and aggressive tendencies are so strongly suppressed that they themselves are not aware of their existence. They cannot, in other words, allow themselves to be aware of their resentful and angry feelings; such feelings, if they had them, would be profoundly dangerous and destructive. To experience their hostility could lead to harm, either to the self or to someone close and important. All anger (and much healthy assertiveness) has, therefore, been banished from the marketplace of consciousness to a dark storehouse where that which is "uncivilized" is kept.

The mate of the histrionic woman would, Willi writes, "like to see himself as a totally unique and absolutely incomparable creature who stands above and beyond all normal requirements." His wife's responsibility in the relationship is to express all of the emotionality that exists in the two of them (and to bear the guilt when her hostility and aggression have gotten beyond her control). He stands aloof, uniquely without feeling, and may deplore her overemotional, somewhat exhibitionistic displays.

The story of their marriage very frequently begins with the rescue of an unhappy maiden —from her miserable home life or from a disastrous involvement with a difficult, rejecting (but exciting) lover or boyfriend. The wife tends to need the man she marries in some way, and this lends him a sense of great importance; he wears her ribbon on his visor. He is the knight in her service, not fully loved for himself, perhaps, but willing and ready to save her. The mission that he undertakes is that of assuming responsibility for her existence and providing her with stability and security. He vows to be her good parent, in other words.

Content with their marital bargain, the couple may live quite happily for a period of time. But eventually the husband, who has suppressed his own dependent, vulnerable feelings—satisfying them vicariously by giving his spouse the devoted maternal caring that he himself actually desires—begins to feel more and more depleted. While he still wants to placate his needful partner and to meet her never-ending demands, he begins to experience himself as running short of emotional provender and having little to spare.

After a while, having warmed himself initially at the fires of his beloved's emotionality, the husband finds himself unable to provide her with the constant validation that she so desperately requires. Although he denies his own needs for attention and affection, he actually wants and needs some of the emotional goodies for himself. But he cannot ask for fulfillment of, often cannot know about, his dependent needs and his wish to be the center of attention—the loved child, who is admired and cared for.

One thing that he is aware of, and has always known, is that he can be self-contained. He can take care of his rather limited needs handily enough, if only he can get rid of the incessant burden of having to deal with hers. The symbiotic fusion, in which she was the good, needful child, and he the perfect, boundlessly caretaking parent, gives way when, inevitably, he pulls back in order to give some nurturance and attention to himself.

His behavior is an almost unbearable disappointment to his spouse. Her profound sense of herself as an unlovable, thoroughly ineffective person has rendered her an emotional hemophiliac: she needs a stream of self-esteem-enhancing affirmation, from outside herself, on a fairly regular basis. Her partner, having promised to be an unstinting and reliable provider, has now inexplicably refused to continue in his cherishing, caretaking function. She feels dismissed, ignored—as she has felt so many times previously in her life.

"Hysterical patients," the psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes in The Art of Psychotherapy, "are defeated persons. They do not consider themselves capable of competing with others on equal terms. More especially, they feel themselves to be disregarded, and, as children, often were disregarded in reality." For such a person it is clearly the case that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.

The histrionic wife cannot tolerate her mate's turning away, and is hypersensitive to any signs of his withdrawal. She is deeply convinced that she doesn't quite exist when she is alone, and fears being by herself and facing her own terrifying emptiness. What had been promised to her in the beginning of the relationship (or so she believed) was that her mate would always be there for her, to provide her with admiration and attention. He would replace her low self-opinion with his inflated estimate of her beauty, intelligence, and value. She would receive from him the unstinting parental love that she had never been accorded before.

The mate, who once reveled in his expressive wife's open emotionality, now desires nothing more than to find some way to shut off the flow at its source. He, who rarely or never experiences anger, is appalled by the depth of his spouse's; he is appalled, too, by the vicious, almost unbelievable cruelty of the things that she says. Her wild overstatements are viewed as disordered, "crazy," too devastating to merit his forgiveness, ever. His reaction is to withdraw even further—and she then pursues him with her stream of endless woes, complaints, and accusations. They are in an interactive cycle, in which the more she emotes, the less he listens, and the less he listens, the more strident and emotive she becomes.

he struggles to take charge of him and of the relationship, to turn it into the marriage that she yearns for—one in which both partners are perennially and completely intimate, and always emotionally expressive (especially around the subject of her own ongoing, difficulties). He struggles just as hard, but in the opposite direction—to control her behavior, and the relationship, so as to ensure the preservation of his personal autonomy. If he did permit himself really to listen to her, he fears, he could get swallowed up in her uncontrolled and uncontrollable affect. What he fears is not only her emotionality but also his own.

"Obsessional personalities, for a variety of personal reasons, have an especially strong propensity toward control both of themselves and their environment," Anthony Storr writes. "For them, as for the child who fears the dark, both the external world and the inner world of their own minds are places of danger. Only perpetual vigilance and unrelenting discipline can ensure that neither get out of hand." Such a person, as Storr observes, lives in fear of an unspecified yet imminent disaster—the emergence of a barely controlled wild beast that is straining at the leash within. This beast is, he suggests, "principally an aggressive animal." Often a compliant, pleasant-seeming person, an obsessive is sitting on a tinderbox of unacknowledged, unprocessed, unimaginable (to himself) rage. Like a ventriloquist, he often communicates that anger only through the medium of his more expressive, "histrionic" mate.

The obsessional person, although he has chosen a radically different form of psychological defense from that of his histrionic partner, has suffered from difficulties that are similar in kind. He, too, has been badly nurtured, and has had problems getting his developmental needs duly recognized and met. In his earliest adaptation his way of dealing with his parents was to become unusually attuned and highly sensitive to what they (or one of them) was feeling. He developed methods of placating the parental authorities who may have demanded that he care for and comfort one or both of them—but avoided facing up to them directly or expressing his rage at never having gotten his own needs attended to.

Full of suppressed resentment himself, the obsessive fears confronting the resentment of others. In adult life, Anthony Storr observes, such people tend to "be authoritarian or else unduly submissive.... Faced with possible hostility, one either conquers or submits. In neither case can one achieve equality and mutual respect." Such a person can relate to someone else in a superior-to-inferior mode or inferior-to-superior mode but has great difficulty relating to another person as an equal. This need for hierarchy makes the formation of an intimate relationship with a cherished peer an impossible—if not unthinkable—dream.

The obsessional person, disconnected from his negative thoughts and feelings, usually finds it difficult to deal with situations that elicit his anger, which are inevitable in life. Frequently, rather than experience his hostile emotions and respond to the real challenge, he will alter his mental processes.

He may, for instance, deal with a disturbing situation by pretending to himself that whatever upset him is actually unimportant (and therefore requires no reaction). Or he may question his own manner of looking at the incident so strenuously and meticulously that it becomes impossible to deal with it in a direct fashion. It is as if, when someone stepped on his toe, he were unable to respond with a straightforward "Get off!" but instead pondered the legitimacy of the other person's being there (even though he was suffering in the meantime).

Still another method for handling his anger might be that of thoroughly repressing it—failing to process the disturbing occurrence and thrusting it out of his conscious awareness completely. He might then react as if nothing whatsoever had happened —which would of course preclude his making the appropriately assertive or angry response that might bring him some satisfaction. This head-in-the-sand strategy, like the other ones, is a device for stifling the obsessional person's recognition of the intense rage against which he is so anxiously defended. But alas, trying to control emotion by exerting control over one's cognitive processes doesn't really result in the bad feelings going away. Anger, like nuclear waste, remains toxic. Unprocessed and undischarged , it simply remains where it is—but the threat of its emergence is constant.

While his partner has no control, he has nothing but control; each seems, in a way, to have brought to the other a missing segment of his or her personality. Together they have what each of them entered into the relationship needing—access to emotionality, and the ability to set reasonable limits upon it. The pair ought to live happily ever after ... or so the observer would imagine.

Two people cannot, however, merge into a single undifferentiated being and remain in that state of fusion indefinitely. They may feel extraordinarily close at first, and their needs may fit together like the interlocking pieces of a puzzle. But inevitably that initial sense of relief—at having found the very person who makes it possible to establish contact with unacknowledged, repudiated, and thoroughly unintegrated aspects of one's own personality—gives way to alarm. There is a sense of not only fitting together but of also being glued there.

The bower of contentment, when the exit doors appear to have closed, starts feeling like a small, claustrophobic cell. The need for personal space inevitably asserts itself. In an effort to assert their separateness and distinctness, the mates begin to exaggerate those qualities that differentiate them from one another. Each moves in the direction of becoming as much unlike the partner as he or she possibly can—in technical terms, they polarize.

The rift between them yawns ever wider as she becomes more attention-seeking, childish, and theatrical, and he becomes increasingly withdrawn, unavailable, and isolated. Soon enough he begins to criticize in her the expressions of open feeling (especially anger) which he had once criticized severely in himself—so severely, in fact, that he had repudiated them completely.

She, in turn, criticizes in him the independent strivings and self-sufficiency that in her view make intimacy impossible—her underlying reason for having disowned such needs and wishes entirely. What was once unacceptable within the self is now what is so intolerable and unacceptable in the partner. The war within each member of the couple has been transformed into a war between them. And each believes that peace and harmony could be achieved, if only the other would change.

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Copyright © 1986 by Maggie Scarf. All rights reserved. The Atlantic Monthly; November 1986; Intimate Partners - 11.86; Volume 258, No. 5; page 45-58.