Like any field that spent decades trying to justify its existence, psychology is full of ambitious, overly-academic language - fantastic for sounding intellectual at parties but unhelpful in fostering an understanding of psychological processes with clients. Recently, an example I've encountered is the defense mechanism “projective identification.” I described this concept to a friend who is not in mental health, who after digesting my mini-lecture replied, “this just sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy.” I was grateful for this layman’s definition and wanted to discuss its role in relationship dynamics, as I see it frequently in couples counseling.
Most of us are somewhat familiar with the idea of “projection,” wherein we take something we don’t like about ourselves and project it onto our partner. An example might be the man who becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is cheating and texting men on the side. However in counseling we later discover that he is, in fact, that one who is cheating.
Projective identification is an extension of this concept, only it begins to ensnare the partner unsuspectingly. Let’s say in our example that our male client becomes so accusatory and unbearable that the female half of the couple does seek romantic attention from someone else. When our male client finds out, he can justify his accusations saying “See! I knew you were going to cheat!”
To over-simplify its definition, projective identification is a process in which one partner induces the other into acting out the projection. A more common and less extreme version of this dynamic can originate with an anxious attachment style. Perhaps a couple, Simon and Ian, are spending the weekend together. Simon notices that Ian has been on his phone frequently throughout the day and resents that fact that Ian is not paying more attention to him. The idea of being mad at his partner is unpleasant, so Simon rids himself of the feeling by deciding that Ian is actually the one mad at him. It should be noted that this process occurs subconsciously.
Simon then says to Ian, “Hey what’s wrong, you aren’t talking to me.” Ian replies, “Oh, nothing’s wrong, I’m just reading an article I really like.” Suppose Simon has an anxious attachment style, which unhelpfully tells him “if my partner isn’t paying attention to me all the time, they hate me.” Ian’s answer is not sufficient to ease Simon’s discomfort, so Simon presses him, “No, really what’s wrong, I can tell you’re mad at me.” Ian again repeats that he is simply reading the news online. Simon pushes the issue, and feeling irritated, Ian snaps back “Nothing is wrong! Geez, just let me read something for a second!” Simon, responding to hostility says, “see, you’re yelling at me, I knew you were mad at me.” Projective identification has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for Simon.
In this example, we can see how a defense mechanism, an attachment style, and a subconscious belief all combine to create a breakdown in communication between partners. The good news is that there are therapeutic methods to address each of these components, including cognitive behavioral therapy and object relations/self psychology. If you find that this dynamic is hindering your relationship from growing further, consider individual or couples counseling. Use the contact information below to set up a consultation today!
Ben Black, LCSW