How To Tell If The Splitting Defense Mechanism Is Damaging Your Relationships

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that people may use to try and save themselves and avoid unpleasant feelings such as uncertainty, fear, or shame. They’re largely unconscious patterns that our brains develop to try and keep us safe. Since they can be limiting or even harmful, however, learning to recognize and challenge them in ourselves can be helpful. In this article, we’ll discuss one defense mechanism in particular that’s known as splitting.

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Learn about splitting and its impact

What is the splitting defense mechanism?

Splitting is a common defense mechanism. It refers to the tendency to “split” people, things, beliefs, or situations into one of two extreme categories: either good or bad. It’s a defense mechanism because it can be helpful in some situations. It’s the brain’s way of making sense of complex situations to decide where danger may lie so it can help us avoid that option. However, in many other situations, it can be an incredibly limiting and even damaging mindset.

The reason splitting can be problematic is that so many things in life exist somewhere on the spectrum in between the two extremes of great and terrible.

Sorting everything into one of two buckets leaves no room for nuance. This approach may seem easier on the surface, since you never have to think too hard about how you feel about something or whether it should have a place in your life. However, there’s a lot you can miss out on if you let a single negative quality or experience tip something completely into the “bad” category. 

For instance, finding a romantic partner may be almost impossible for someone who operates completely from the mindset of splitting. They may reject all their dates for having normal human flaws and end up never entering a relationship with anyone. As you can imagine, people who rely heavily on the splitting defense mechanism are likely to have a strong perfectionist mindset.

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Who employs the splitting defense mechanism?

This defense mechanism can be seen in many of us from time to time. However, it’s common to see more extreme versions of it in adolescents and young adults. As children, we’re often taught a simplified worldview that may not expand to include more nuance and possibilities until we’re older and have had a bit more life experience.

Those who have experienced certain forms of neglect or trauma in childhood may also rely more heavily on splitting. For example, someone who grew up with an inconsistent caregiver may have been unable to reconcile their nurturing actions with the times they were unresponsive. This could potentially lead their brain to categorize the caregiver as “bad” or “to be avoided” because they weren’t meeting their needs. Without a specific effort to shift this mindset, the person may automatically characterize people in their adult life as either all good or all bad.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) also have a strong tendency to split, classifying people as either winners or losers. To safeguard and maintain their self-esteem, they may see themselves as completely virtuous and admirable, and those who don’t hold the same beliefs or values as beneath them. This mechanism can be commonly seen in those with borderline personality disorder as well. They may vacillate between the extremes of idealizing someone one moment and devaluing them the next.

Examples of the splitting defense mechanism

Most of us are exposed to the concept of splitting from a young age. It’s rampant in fairy tales and cartoons where there is a stark divide between the all-good heroes and the all-bad villains. As we get older, we’re exposed to it in other forms of media as well. In many romantic movies, for example, the protagonist becomes hopelessly infatuated with someone the instant they meet, and they go to great lengths to preserve the relationship without ever considering or addressing clear red flags.

Other examples of splitting that you may commonly encounter in life include when…

  • A political party portrays the opposing party as purely contemptible
  • A religion categorizes people as either saved or damned
  • Children of divorce do or are encouraged to view one parent as exemplary and the other as despicable

While splitting is common, the reality is that everything and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. Even the most detestable person can have some positive traits, and even someone who seems perfect has their flaws. While completely turning off your brain’s instinct to split people into extreme categories may not be reasonable or possible, noticing the tendency and then leaving space for a more nuanced view is typically the goal. Being able to acknowledge the layered complexities of people and situations will generally allow for more stable relationships and a richer life experience overall.

How splitting can damage relationships

Being in a relationship with someone who sees the world completely in black and white rather than in shades of gray can be challenging. This person may unpredictably flip between thinking that their partner is perfect or awful, holding them to high standards and not allowing room for mistakes. They may be unable to accept or integrate new information about the person that conflicts in any way with the image of and judgments about them that they’ve already formed in their mind. This can be exhausting for the other person, potentially creating feelings of never being good enough.

A person with a splitting tendency may also apply this mindset to the actions of their partner. They may see each one as either loving and supportive or as a direct attack, without acknowledging the complex other factors at play such as intentions, circumstances, history, etc. Sometimes, splitting tendencies in a relationship stem from a fear of abandonment. In this case, the person may be more attuned to negative traits or actions in their partner so they can “prove” that their fears were justified and leave the relationship before they can be left. It’s part of why the person prone to splitting may be negatively affected by this mechanism, too: The fear it was borne out of may prevent them from ever forming close, lasting bonds until they get it under control.

Finally, splitting can have consequences for the individual that can affect them in both their personal life and in their relationships. One study notes that this defense mechanism correlates with poor self-image stability, self-esteem, and even depression. Since these are negative mental health outcomes that can have far-reaching effects on multiple aspects of a person’s life, learning to temper one’s inclination to split can be a worthwhile endeavor.

Signs that you may be splitting

One major sign that you may have splitting tendencies is identifying with your positive qualities as part of your personality, but distancing yourself from your negative qualities or flaws. This mindset indicates that you’re splitting even yourself into two extremes, rather than integrating all your characteristics to form a realistic, holistic view of yourself as a complete person. 

When it comes to relationships, identifying with the following traits or tendencies may indicate a habit of splitting:

  • Experiencing intense mood swings and fluctuations in regards to how you feel about your partner or your dynamic
  • Idealizing a partner at the beginning of a relationship, and then condemning them as time goes on
  • Creating a push/pull dynamic in relationships
  • Searching for perfection in a relationship
  • Always wanting to name a winner and a loser in a disagreement or argument
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Learn about splitting and its impact

Ways to gain control over the splitting defense mechanism

Since splitting can damage your relationships and limit your own happiness and potential, working toward gaining control over it can bring about positive outcomes. The first step is to learn to recognize when you’re employing this mechanism. Beginning a mindfulness practice of some kind may help you develop a stronger awareness of your thoughts so you can notice when this tendency arises. Becoming aware of what triggers your instinct to split can also be useful. You might try keeping a journal of these instances and studying it for trends.

Over time, you’ll likely also need to learn to expand your worldview. Remind yourself that people are multi-faceted. When you’re tempted to judge someone, remember that they have hundreds or thousands of different traits and that it’s unrealistic to imagine that all of them fit neatly into the “good” bucket or the “bad” one. It may help to start by trying to extend this grace and understanding to yourself, since people who are prone to splitting may hold themselves to as harsh a standard as those around them.

How therapy can help

Seeking the support of a mental health professional can also be a powerful resource in this process. Since defense mechanisms are generally unconscious, you may not even realize you’re splitting. A therapist can help bring these instances to your attention so you can work toward shifting this thought pattern whenever it arises. Over time, they can assist you in seeing the world in a more nuanced, colorful way rather than in dreary black and white, which can benefit your happiness and well-being as well as your relationships. 

If you choose to connect with a therapist, deciding between in-person or virtual therapy usually comes down to your own comfort level. If you prefer in-person sessions, you can seek out a provider in your local area. If you feel more at ease meeting with someone online from the comfort of your own home, you might consider an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. You’ll fill out a brief questionnaire about your needs and preferences and will then be matched with a licensed therapist accordingly. You can meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat to work through whatever challenges you may be facing. Since research suggests that virtual therapy offers similar benefits to in-person sessions, you have the freedom to choose the format that feels best for you because both are effective. If you’re interested in online therapy, see below for client reviews of BetterHelp therapists.

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“I’m not sure I have the adequate words to express how much Dr. Drew has helped me. She is supportive, and has given me so many different outlets and tools to work through our therapy together. I have had therapists who have tunnel vision in where they’d like to direct the conversation, and it was a relief to not have that with Dr. Drew. She lets me organically go where I need to in the session. She also has been able to connect with my personality and direct therapy in a fashion that is conducive to my learning. I couldn’t recommend her enough.”

“I have really enjoyed working with Kim thus far. She has given me some excellent tools to manage and correct negative thought patterns in my daily life. I am so grateful for her patience, understanding, and just for her listening to me and helping me work through my thoughts.”

Takeaway

The defense mechanism of splitting may be holding you back from living a richer, more colorful life. Learning to recognize when you may be employing this thought pattern is the first step toward getting it under control and broadening your perspective on life in a healthy way.
Learn how your defenses may hold you back
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