The Splitting Defense Mechanism - How It Can Damage Your Relationships Without You Knowing

Updated July 10, 2019

Reviewer Audrey Kelly, LMFT

The Defense Mechanism

Defense mechanisms are put in place by us to protect us, but often to the detriment of our emotional well-being. They ward off and defend us from unpleasant feelings such as unpredictability, fear and shame and any other unbearable feelings or needs we may have. They also give us a false sense of control over ourselves, other people and our surroundings. We aren't aware of how much control they can have over our lives as they can be deeply unconscious but, used frequently, it can result in unhealthy consequences for the individual.

What Is the Splitting Ego Defense Mechanism?

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Splitting is a common ego defense mechanism and can be defined as dividing of people or beliefs as either good or bad and positive or negative. It is a black-and-white way of thinking. Individuals who struggle with splitting view themselves and their lives in extremes and fail to integrate the complexities and nuances of life into one cohesive whole, instead of categorizing and polarizing things into two opposites.

Splitting stems from the inability to grasp the uncertainties of what we encounter in day-to-day life and the many grey areas in life we don't need to have an answer to. Instead of saying, "It is what it is," people diagnosed with a splitting ego defense mechanism overly simplify things and go by the belief, "It must be good or bad. There cannot be an in-between."

Not all splitting is bad. It can help us make sense of the world and make predictions in seemingly out-of-control environments. However, severe splitting can cause detriment and damage to not only ourselves but our most important relationships.

Who Is It Most Commonly Used By?

It is most susceptible in adolescents, teenagers and young adults in the years they explore their self-identity. People who have gone through childhood trauma also tend to use splitting as a defense mechanism; as a child, they were unable to combine the nurturing aspects with the unresponsive aspects of the parent or caregiver.

Those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder also have a strong tendency to split, categorizing people into either winners or losers. To maintain their self-esteem, they see themselves as virtuous and admirable and those who don't hold the same beliefs or values as beneath them.

Most notably, it is found in people with a borderline personality disorder as they are caught between extremes of idealizing someone one moment and then devaluating them the next. They are unable to integrate the goodness and badness of themselves and others, and they will discard the damaged self as they see fit.

Splitting Defense Mechanism Examples

Most of us are exposed to extreme splitting from a young age; it is rampant in fairytales and movies where there is a stark split between the 'good' heroes and 'bad' villains of the story.

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You may have also witnessed a friend falling in love and becoming hopelessly infatuated, only to notice that they avoid acknowledging or admitting to their new love interest's unfavorable personality traits. It is the 'rose-colored glasses' effect of love in its early stages, but it leaves you with a trail of worry and doubts.

Other examples of splitting include political parties who regard the opposing side as purely contemptible, the religious among us categorizing people into the saved or damned and children of divorce viewing one parent as favorable and the other as despicable.

While splitting is common among people and groups in society, the reality is that everything and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. Even the most hateful and detestable person or group in your opinion will have traits that perhaps make them a good leader or an effective movement. People with a healthy understanding of the world will acknowledge and accept the layered complexities of people and life as reality.

How Splitting Damages Your Relationships

Being in a relationship with someone who sees the world in black-and-white is not easy; in fact, the incessant habit of splitting can cause chaos, damage the people involved and ultimately destroy the relationship.

The individual who uses splitting as a defense mechanism only thinks in extremities and will have intense emotional experiences within the relationship. They constantly flip between thinking their partner is an angel and a devil; they simply cannot mix or integrate their feelings and thoughts about someone into a whole, and there is no room for grey areas. As you can imagine, this can be exhausting for the partner of a chronic splitter and create a feeling of never being good enough for him or her. They may also feel very confused as the splitter will love them one minute and then hate them the next.

An individual with a splitting defense mechanism sees the actions and motivations of their partner as all good or all bad depending on their needs and desires. This can mount in frustration and possibly volatile anger, and when an argument escalates, it usually results in the splitter losing respect for their partner and thinking that they are not worthy of them or their time.

This pattern of destructiveness results in never-ending, perpetual unhappiness for the splitter as they are unable to maintain a long-term or stable relationship. They are always on the hunt for the perfect person and the perfect relationship, when in reality this is delusional and does not exist. By denying the intricate layers of the human spirit and the human relationship, the individual finds themselves unsatisfied and always wanting for more, even with a partner who loves them deeply.

Signs You Are Splitting

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One of the biggest signs that you are using splitting as an ego defense mechanism is by saying that the flattering, positive qualities of yourself "are me" and the unflattering, negative qualities of yourself "are not me." You split yourself into two parts and reject and disown the part that you dislike. The truth is, you have lovely and not-so-lovely qualities about yourself and splitting only demonizes yourself and those who are different to you while falsely reinforcing your superior goodness.

If you have a splitting ego defense mechanism, you think:

  • That you are either a success or a failure.
  • People are all good or all bad.
  • You are all good or all bad.

Traits in a splitting ego defense mechanism include:

  • Intense mood swings and constant emotional fluctuations in a relationship
  • The tendency to idealize a partner, especially in the beginning of a relationship, then condemn them later on
  • Pushing and pulling people away
  • Searching for perfectionism in a relationship
  • A victim mentality where people who differ from you or do you wrong is a devil
  • Black-and-white, absolute thinking
  • The belief you are right, and everyone else is wrong

Ways to Overcome the Splitting Defense Mechanism

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  1. Become aware of your behaviors and triggers. One of the most important steps to dismantling the splitting defense mechanism is self-awareness. Realizing that you are guilty of splitting, whether a little or a lot and taking note of when you feel most triggered to split and what behaviors arise when you do is the first step to overcoming it.
  2. Respond, don't react. Becoming mindful of how you react in certain situations will then help you respond thoughtfully rather than irrationally in any given situation. Taking deep breaths, distracting yourself or removing yourself from the situation are constructive, emotionally healthy ways to rationalize your thoughts and regulate your emotions.
  3. Remember that people are multi-faceted. When you are tempted to split someone, remind yourself of all the positive, negative and neutral aspects of that person. When you think of them as being "bad," remind yourself of all the good things they do and vice versa. Empathize and look beyond people's actions into their motivations. More often than not, it is not personal, and they are not trying to hurt you purposely.
  4. Go to therapy. Because splitting can be an unconscious defense mechanism, a lot of us don't realize we are doing it. By relating your struggle with a therapist, uncovering the story of why you need to split and processing how it has embedded itself in your life and relationships, you can repair the damage it has done in your life in a safe and emotionally-regulated environment. BetterHelp have a team of trained therapists to support and guide you through this process of complete confidentiality and professionalism.

What Makes Us Human

People are not all good, and people are not all bad; people are both. And so are you. Being flawed is OK.Having short-comings is OK. It's OK that people have different beliefs and opinions from you. Without this, life and the people in it wouldn't be so rich, layered and interesting.

By being aware of your tendency to split, emotionally regulating yourself and finding invaluable support in therapy, you can re-wire your brain so that it no longer needs to fit things into black-and-white categories but rather, appreciate the world in its full and vibrant colors.


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