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Splitting: Bringing in That Third Party

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Recently, there was a discussion of a psychological mechanism called “splitting.” People accurately discussed its characteristics but did not include an important facet of this behavior. Lets discuss it now.

The term, “defense mechanism” was first defined and elaborated by Sigmund Freud. It is a way the mind has of protecting us from overwhelming anxiety. Consequently, it is part of the type of therapy referred to as psychoanalysis. While many of psychoanalytic concepts are no longer in fashion since the advent of more targeted and concrete forms of therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Splitting remains useful and relevant in psychology.

While splitting is often associated with Borderline Disorder, it can be used by anyone at any time if they are under enough pressure, stress, anxiety and anger.

During the discussion, here at Mental Health Net, members of our Self Help Community talked about the fact that, when splitting, a person is thinking about a situation only in “right or wrong, black and white” terms. In other words, if you have a quarrel with someone that person becomes an entirely bad individual with no redeeming qualities. There is no room for “gray colors,” but only black or white. The other is a paragon of all that is evil in the world.

The important facet off splitting that needs to be included and understood in the discussion has to do with bringing a third party into a conflict. Here is an example representing what many psychotherapist deal with from time to time.

Example of splitting:

“Let us say that I am a psychotherapist in an outpatient clinic somewhere in the U.S.A. I am part of a team whose leader is the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist serves as the leader or director of outpatient mental health services, writes prescriptions for patients who need them after he meets with them and supervises advises each therapist in the clinic.

I am working with a female patient, roughly 50 years old, who has depression and meets with me for psychotherapy once per week. She is pleasant, nicely dressed and smiles a great deal. Her smile and cheerfulness cause me to feel some discomfort and makes me worry about what may be going on in her mind, behind the smile.

Sure enough, one day the psychiatrist comes to me and discusses with me the fact that this patient complained to him about me and asked for another therapist. He quickly pointed out that she was Splitting by withholding her anger at me and going behind my back to him. He informed the patient that she needed to discuss her issue with me rather than going to another therapist adding that she can always see someone else if she still wants to after discussing her complaint with me. He and I worked on a strategy on how to help her with her splitting without causing her to feel blamed, criticized or misunderstood.

At the next session she and I talked about what had happened. She revealed that she was angry about something I had said several weeks ago but did not confront me for fear that I would be very angry and scold her. This is what her father did anytime she tried to talk to him. She was surprised that I was not angry, did not scold her, did not mind her going to the psychiatrist and was now comfortable that she could discuss with me any time I may anger her in the future. She left the session feeling greatly relieved. Her therapy progressed in a very positive direction for her as she headed toward mental health.”

Please understand that this can happen between any two people. It often involves gossip behind the backs of other people resulting in someone getting offended. Of course, what is offensive is that the target of the gossip was never directly addressed about the problem.

This type of thing can happen between husband and wife if one of them goes to an outside party to complain or if the children are used to be the third party, something that happens all too often.

Does any of this sound familiar to you. Please submit your opinions, questions and experiences with this.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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