The quality of all of our relationships is a direct function of our relationship to ourselves.
Since no one influences our relationship to ourselves as much as our parents, we are often drawn to people who have some key qualities of our parents (or their extreme opposites.) While at first familiar and comforting, eventually those qualities become all-too-familiar triggers to our childhood responses. For example, what at first seemed attractive, “strong and in control,” turns into “controlling and dictatorial.”
“How many marriages are wrecked for years, and sometimes forever, because he sees his mother in his wife and she her father in her husband, and neither ever recognizes the other’s reality!” wrote Carl Jung.
Imagine a wife is projecting onto her husband, “You’re just like my father — controlling and dictatorial.” Naturally, she will respond with the same defenses as she did as a child — she will behave like a child, whether with hostility, withdrawal, or reluctant compliance. Such a response intensifies the dynamic between the couple. He will see her as weak and become more domineering as a defense against vulnerability.
Projection triggers automatic responses, closing off the opportunity to relate in a fresh way in the current situation. By projecting all the control onto her husband, the wife assumes a lack of self-empowerment and continues to give away the power that she can develop within herself. The husband projects away his vulnerability and becomes increasingly forceful to repress any healthy though uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty.
To avoid this unhappy vicious cycle, the partners can try to take back their projections and overcome their automatic reactions.
Taking back projections is not easy. Partners feel obligated to point out the weaknesses of their partner that really reside within themselves. However, by taking back our projections, we have a chance to grow and learn to approach our partners fair-mindedly.
So, if we see our partner as controlling, for example, we must
1) learn to deal effectively with controlling people,
2) develop more personal authority to become less of a victim, and
3) deflate the power of controlling behavior by seeing the fear of vulnerability beneath the controlling behavior.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD