A Family, Relationship, and human Communication Problem: Splitting

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Did you ever have the experience of telling someone(friend or family member) something private only to discover the information coming back to you from a third person and in a form that is very distorted? This can be very disconcerting, to say the least. For example, many years ago, (when I was young and had a full head of hair), my uncle reported to me a comment my brother had made about me. The report made me very angry but it also caused me to feel very peculiar. After all, what was I to do with the information? What did it mean and did it reflect what my brother truly felt?

This is something I refer to as "indirect communication." It is also known, in the field of psychodynamic family therapy as "splitting. "Splitting,... what is that?"


Splitting is an attempt on the part of one person to make another, third individual, look wrong, bad, guilty. In this case  my brother was doing the splitting. He was complaining about me to our uncle. In doing so, my brother was causing me to look really bad or negative. However, my uncle was also splitting by carrying the message back to me outside of my brother's awareness. I knew him well enough to be aware of the fact that he enjoyed making my brother look bad at every opportunity.

Splitting can happen anywhere including at work, among groups of friends and, of course, within families. It is a pathological form of communication because the person who is doing the splitting is attempting to create havoc by portraying another person as "all bad." Here is an example of splitting occurring at an outpatient mental health clinic I worked at for many years:

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"The patient was a 55 year old woman with a long history of depression, family dysfunction marked by fighting and deep seated resentments that became so intense that many relatives cut her off.

She was a fairly new patient of mine, having seen me four to five times for psychotherapy. She always presented herself to me as pleasant, cooperative and friendly.

One day, the prescribing psychiatrist who regulated her anti depressant medications, reported to me that this patient complained that she was not getting better with me as her therapist. He was a very astute psychiatrist and stated in no uncertain terms that this woman was "splitting" and he wanted to heal the split. What he meant was the patient was attempting to cause friction between he and I by carrying her complaint to him rather than discussing it with me. He proposed that I present her with the information and discuss it fully. If it was necessary, the three of us could talk but he doubted it would be necessary.

During the next session I gently reported to the patient that the psychiatrist and I had talked and that he made me aware that she had some complaints about me. Rather than defending myself, I allowed her to complain and asked why she had not come to me directly to discuss the issues that bothered her?

The result of that important session and the subsequent work was the to work on her use of the primitive defense mechanism called "splitting." Splitting is the unconscious dividing of the self and others into beings who are either all good or all bad. In this case, the psychiatrist became all good and I became all bad. When treatment first started the patient saw me as all good. However, she soon became disappointed with and angry at me. The reason for this was that I arrived late for one session and had to cancel another because I had the flu. She denied my lateness and absence made any difference to her. "After all," she said, "everyone gets sick." Not only was she angry at me, but,  her anger grew and she came to see me as "all bad." In seeing me as all bad, she also became fearful and distrustful of me. The result was she went to the psychiatrist, rather than to me, to complain.

This patient was able to discuss the fact that she feared telling me about her anger. She talked about her long history of having been abused, dating back to childhood and continuing into her adulthood.

In all, that and later sessions came to be very healing as the patient learned she could discuss her anger at me without feeling threatened. 

So, splitting is a primitive defense mechanism. We all have and use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves in the face of danger. The problem of splitting is that it is a very unhealthy form of self defense that does nothing to help the individual interact in ways that are healthy. It is unhealthy because people are neither all good nor all bad but a combination of both.

It is important that people see others in of "shades of gray" rather than "black and white." my uncle had a lot of difficulty seeing people in shades of gray. I remember, going back to my earliest childhood, that he tended to portray others as idealized or evil. Whatever happened in his childhood prevented him from having a more accurate view of people. That problems destroyed most of his relationships throughout his life.

It is important to remember that, in the process of splitting, the other person may be viewed as unrealistically perfect, ideal and good. At the outset of romantic relationships there may be a short, but healthy, period of viewing the romantic partner in totally idealized terms. In this scenario, splitting plays a health role in starting what could become a long term relationship. However, the idealization of the romantic partner gives way to a more realistic picture of the other as the two people come to know and understand one another in ways that are more realistic. During this period of the deepening of the relationship, two people realize that their partner is just a normal human being, comprised of strengths and weaknesses.

Splitting is often used by governments during times of war. In this, the enemy is portrayed as the paragon of all that is evil. After the 911 attacks on the World Trade Center, there was a strong tendency on the part of many Americans, to view all Arabs and Muslims as totally evil, violent, murderous and blood thirsty. Those of us who knew Muslims in the community were well aware that this portrayal was totally false. These people held nothing in common with the tiny minority of radical Muslims lead by Osama bin Laden.

One of the most destructive forms of splitting is in the form of racism. Of course, the racist is the hateful individual who views the members of another race as all evil. In this, the race to which they belong is thought of as perfect and ideal while the other as less than human. Racism has existed not only here, in the United States, but in nations worldwide. Hitler is the most is a prime example of splitting. Jews, Russians, East Europeans and other groups were defined as animals and good for nothing except either elimination or slavery. Ethnic cleansing is a more recent example of splitting.

However, it is in the daily lives of many people that splitting most often takes place.

There is the often quoted biblical reminder that "he who is without sin should cast the first stone." The meaning of the saying is that none of us are without sin because we are human and, therefore, imperfect.

What are your experiences with the defence mechanism of splitting? In what ways have you found yourself splitting" In what ways have you been the victim of splitting?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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