|When we hear the word “splitting,” most of us will probably think of “splitting up,” or maybe think about splitting in the sense of leaving (‘let’s split’ — i.e. get out of here!). I’d like to bring up another use of the word — one that’s particularly pertinent to people who are going through separation or divorce.
Splitting can also be thought of as a word that describes a psychological dynamic, a defense mechanism in which a person tends to see things — especially other people — as either totally good or totally bad, black or white with no shades of gray. In an odd and interesting way, this serves to protect the person from ambivalence, or mixed feelings, about him or herself or others. When people utilize splitting in relation to their marriage, for example, they will tend to see their spouse as either a saint or a devil, because it’s too painful to see him or her as having both good and bad qualities simultaneously. It’s a way to try to make yourself feel whole, or “all good” about yourself in relation to others.
It’s not my fault!
In separation or divorce situations, splitting frequently takes place in an unconscious effort to protect us from feeling bad about ourselves: in other words, “It isn’t me who’s rotten, it’s him (or her)!” In an effort to protect ourselves from feeling like a failure, from a loss of self-esteem, or from taking responsibility for a marriage ending, we sometimes blame the other guy completely. It’s a way of making ourselves feel better at the expense of the other spouse. As splitting continues, the result can be that the ex is perceived as a kind of hideous monster.
“So what’s the harm if it makes me feel a little better?” you might ask. One problem that often arises is that people end up staying very unhappily but powerfully connected to each other through fighting. Hatred actually keeps the couple bonded to one another. When they can begin to let go of splitting and the rage that ensues, they’ll be in a stronger position to move forward with their lives.
If the separating couple are parents, their use of splitting can become big trouble for their kids. When divorcing parents start to see each other as “the enemy,” they are destined to put their children in a real bind. Splitting will polarize them further and further, until they start to see each other as monsters. This unfortunately can lead people into custody battles, which are almost invariably destructive to everyone involved, but especially to children. They are usually quite stressful, expensive, and can take years to complete. I have often heard parents who have suffered in these battles later say that they sorely regretted it, and that the only people who “won” were their lawyers.
Others promote splitting
There’s actually a lot of support for the use of splitting from friends and family, who may say things like: “I never liked him anyway,” or “I never understood what you saw in her,” and the ever-popular line, “Honestly, you’ll be better off without him!” Although these comments are usually well-meaning, they aren’t very helpful, since they tend to exacerbate the splitting.
When in the hands of litigating attorneys in the adversarial system, people can feel vindicated as once again they are supported with the notion that “I am good, and my ex-spouse is bad.” However, as the splitting takes hold, it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire, and it will usually blow up in your face. For every “zinger comment” or allegation, there’s sure to be a counter-allegation, and off it goes. This can lead to an all-out war that makes everyone suffer in the long run.
Kids need both a mom and a dad whenever possible. When splitting takes hold, it can lead to a situation in which the mom and dad start to hate each other so much, their feelings can’t help but spill over into the child’s life. Sometimes kids get caught in loyalty struggles, where they feel that if they want to see one parent, they are betraying the other parent by doing so. Kids need to be able to feel that they can still love both parents — even if their parents no longer love each other.
I recently heard of a couple that got ensnared in a particularly nasty custody battle. Only two years ago, they could still be heard saying things about each other like, “I know she’s a good mom,” and “I know he’s a good father,” despite the fact that they were getting divorced. Sadly, when splitting took over and their litigating lawyers fed the flames, a war ensued that led them into a very ugly custody battle over their 10-year-old daughter. They now see each other as “vile scum” unfit to walk the face of the earth, never mind to be the other parent of their daughter! Not surprisingly, their daughter is utterly miserable: she’s an unhappy, depressed, angry girl who rarely smiles and has developed behavior problems at school. From what I hear, they have squandered more than $100,000 between them in legal fees thus far, and the war continues with no end in sight.
How to avoid splitting
For starters, I think you can prevent things from snowballing if you’re at least aware that splitting is taking place. Also, try to keep in mind that no matter how angry you may be at your ex-spouse, open hatred, warfare, and vindictive action against him or her will inevitably hurt your children a lot.
If possible, “changing the frame” can help a great deal. Instead of thinking of either yourself or your ex-spouse as a failure or “damaged goods,” try to see the relationship as one that simply didn’t work out. This can help you manage to see your ex as a human being with some redeeming qualities, even though you may be feeling hurt and angry. It can also help preserve your self-esteem without resorting to the use of splitting.
In mediation, we emphasize differentiating between the spousal role — which is ending — and the parental role — which is continuing. In an effort to make an ongoing parental arrangement workable, you will need to preserve some sense of your ex-spouse as a person whom you may no longer love, but who is still a basically decent human being. This will help your children a lot, and it will also help you move forward so that you can get on with your own life.
Alan L. Frankel, C.S.W., is a psychotherapist and divorce mediator who specializes in helping families undergoing a separation or divorce. He is in private practice in Mt. Kisco, N.Y.