Splitting (psychology)

Splitting (psychology)

Splitting can be explained as thinking purely in extremes, e.g. good versus bad, powerful versus defenseless and so on. A two-year-old child cannot see a person who does something unpleasant to the child (e.g. not feeding him when he is hungry), as possessing just one or a few bad characteristic(s). This is too complicated for the incompletely developed brain. The other can only be seen as all bad at that moment in time. However, when this person gratifies the child, he will be perceived as all good again.Splitting can be seen as a developmental stage and as a defense mechanism.

Splitting was first described by Pierre Janet. He initially coined the term splitting in his book "L'Automatisme psychologique". Sigmund Freud also worked to explain this idea, and it was later more clearly defined by his daughter Anna Freud.

plitting as a developmental stage

Melanie Klein

In her object relations theory, Melanie Klein states that children are born with two primary drives: love and hate. All humans struggle throughout their lives to integrate both drives into constructive social interaction, and an important step in childhood development is the gradual depolarization of these two drives. According to Klein, this step is called the paranoid-schizoid position.

[http://www.answers.com/topic/splitting-of-the-object| Splitting] refers to the separation of the things the child loves (good, gratifying objects) and the things the child hates (bad, frustrating objects). Klein refers to these things as the "good breast" and the "bad breast". The child sees the breasts as not just as distinct and separate, but opposite, although they actually are united, since they both belong to one mother. When the child learns that people and objects can be good "and" bad at the same time, he or she progresses to the next phase: the depressive position.

Otto Kernberg

In the developmental model of Otto Kernberg [Mitchell, S.A. & Black, M.J. (1995). Freud and beyond. New York, NY, Basic Books] , the overcoming of splitting is also an important developmental task. The child has to learn to integrate feelings of love and hate. Kernberg distinguishes three different stages in the development of a child with respect to splitting:

* First stage: the child does not experience the self and the object, nor the good and the bad as different entities.
* Second stage: good and bad are viewed as different. Because the boundaries between the self and the other are not stable yet, the other as a person is viewed as either all good or all bad, depending on their actions. This also means that thinking about another person as bad implies that the self is bad as well; so it’s better to think about the caregiver as a good person, so the self is viewed as good too.
* Third stage: splitting is resolved and the self and the other can be seen as possessing both good and bad qualities. Having hateful thoughts about the other doesn’t mean that the self is all hateful and doesn’t mean that the other person is all hateful either.

plitting as a defense mechanism

If a person fails to accomplish this developmental task, borderline pathology can develop. The borderline personality is not able to integrate the good and bad images of both self and others. Kernberg also states that people who suffer from borderline personality disorder have a ‘bad representation’ which dominates the ‘good representation’ [Siegel, J.P. (2006). Dyadic splitting in partner relational disorders. Journal of Family Psychology, 20 (3), 418-422] . This makes them experience love and sexuality in perverse and violent qualities which they cannot integrate with the tender, intimate side of relationships [Mitchell, S.A. & Black, M.J. (1995). Freud and beyond. New York, NY, Basic Books] . These people tend to suffer from intense fusion anxieties in intimate relationships, because the boundaries between self and other are not firm. A tender moment between self and other could mean the disappearance of the self into the other. This triggers intense anxiety. To overcome the anxiety, the other is made into a very bad person; this can be done, because the other is made responsible for this anxiety. However, if the other is viewed as a bad person, the self must be bad as well. Viewing the self as all bad cannot be endured, so the switch is made to the other side: the self is good, which means the other must be good too. If the other is all good and the self is all good, where does the self begin and end? Intense anxiety is the result and so the cycle repeats itself.

People who are diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder also use splitting as a central defense mechanism. They do this to preserve their self-esteem. They do this by seeing the self as purely good and the others as purely bad. The use of splitting also implies the use of other defense mechanisms, namely devaluation, idealization and denial [Siegel, J.P. (2006). Dyadic splitting in partner relational disorders. Journal of Family Psychology, 20 (3), 418-422] .

Splitting creates instability in relationships, because one person can be viewed as either all good or all bad at different times, depending on whether he or she gratifies needs or frustrates them. This, and similar oscillations in the experience of the self, lead to chaotic and unstable relationship patterns, identity diffusion and mood swings.Consequently, the therapeutic process can be greatly impeded by these oscillations, because the therapist too can become victim of splitting. To overcome the negative effects on treatment outcome, constant interpretations by the therapist are needed [Gould, J.R., Prentice, N.M. & Ainslie, R. C. (1996). The splitting index: construction of a scale measuring the defense mechanism of splitting. Journal of personality assessment, 66 (2), 414-430] .


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