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Emotional Splitting In Relationships: How to Support Them When They Only Idealize or Devalue You

The term splitting refers to a way a person views themselves and others that only operates in absolutes; or in other words good and evil. Splitting is a term used more often in people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or more extreme pathological diagnoses; however, splitting is not always pathological and is actually used in everyday life. When a situation feels too complicated for a person to make sense of their survival instincts might kick in by making an executive decision to decide that a person in their life is either good or bad, with them or against them.

OK But What Does Splitting Look/Sound Like?

"You aren't even a real therapist! You just make people trust you by manipulating them and you make them think that you care but you don't!" This is what one of my clients told me right before they left my office in outrage after I confronted them for being mean to their sibling. This was not the first time this happened with this same client so I allowed them to leave and scheduled their next session for the same day and time as usual and I also told them that I looked forward to continuing our work together.

When they came in they greeted me with a smile and told me about how they bragged to their parents they have the best therapist in the world. In this scenario my client was unable to differentiate confrontation from attack and in that moment I became their enemy but once they came back I was their savior in part due to the fact that I remained a constant in their life that still felt safe.

In romantic relationships the individual who struggles with emotional splitting will tend to place their partner up high on a pedestal; over-idealizing them to a fault. This becomes incredibly problematic because no one is ever prepared to be idealized in this way; it is not realistic and definitely not sustainable. Eventually, the person on the pedestal makes usually a very human mistake, unbeknownst to them this mistake will send their partner into a downward spiral of doubt, fear, and intense anxiety.

How To Support Yourself Your Loved One and The Relationship

Healthy Boundaries:

While you can not prevent your loved one from splitting you also do not deserve to be mistreated in any way. It is important to let them know that you can not hear them and will not listen while they are yelling. You can say things like "You are allowed to have your feelings but I can not process what you are saying while you are this upset. Let's take some time to calm down and talk about this when you are feeling better." It is really difficult to set these boundaries especially when they have a grandiose view of themselves compared to how they see you at that moment so you can try saying "I think you have some really great points to what you are saying and I want to talk this out with you but I just can not hear you when you are yelling."

Respect and Affirm Your Own Feelings

Your feelings matter, understanding and empathizing with your loved one who struggles with splitting or other behaviors related to trauma or mental health issues does not mean that you don't express how you feel and how their behavior affects you. Splitting is not healed by forcing someone to see your point of view and it's definitely not a good idea to confront someone when they are in the middle of a splitting moment. You are allowed to be hurt, sad, angry, and anxious, and you are allowed to admit to yourself that you have thoughts about exiting the relationship. The relationship can not survive if the person is not willing to seek help to control their impulses integrate the good and the bad and begin to see the gray areas as a good and human thing.

Offer Reassurance and Affirmation That The Relationship Will Continue

Many people who struggle with splitting related to BPD or not also experience trauma of abandonment and fear of being enough which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts when they are unsuccessful at maintaining healthy relationships. It is important to let your loved one know that while you are both upset your relationship is not going to end. This can be very difficult especially when your person is criticizing you or saying things that are harmful.

In the case of my client when I let them know that I looked forward to our continued work, while they were unable to express this to me until many months later they let me know that meant the world to them and it's something that was a big contributor to their healing process. "When you told me that I was surprised because so many people have cut me out of their life because of how I act, you were telling me that there was still a connection and I hadn't ruined it."

If your loved one struggles with splitting and disorganized attachment support them by offering to help them find a professional they align with and let them know that while they are working on managing their emotions you will stay around, knowing that progress is gradual and that you accept them just the way they are healing not healed.

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