This post is an excerpt from my late wife Sandra Michaelson’s book, LoveSmart: Transforming the Emotional Patterns that Sabotage Relationships. The book exposes how we unconsciously resist recognition of our own barriers to being more loving, while choosing instead to blame our partner or others for our misery.
Often, we adjust and adapt our emotional lives around our partner’s frailties. We set up a grievance-file on our emotional hard drive that’s filled with our partner’s past, present, and anticipated weaknesses and transgressions.
We conclude that if our partner’s flaws didn’t exist, we would be happy. Keep in mind that we are always making the mistake of holding our partner responsible for how he “makes” us feel. If he changes his behavior, we assume we won’t have to continue feeling bad. But making our wellbeing dependent on someone else’s attitudes or behaviors is one of the major reasons we are unhappy. For one thing, we are highly ineffective in inspiring reform in our partner when we make our happiness dependent on his or her compliance. In fact, when we act from this insecure, self-centered intent, we are more likely to bring out the worst in our partner.
A preoccupation with our partner’s flaws or weaknesses serves many purposes, particularly our willingness to indulge in feeling disappointed in our partner. I wrote in the Introduction about my dismay when in the mid-1980s I first discovered this emotional attachment in myself. The knowledge of it, and my willingness to observe this attachment on a daily basis, became one of the cornerstones of my inner liberation.
As long as we see our partner as imperfect or flawed, we set ourselves up to feel we are getting nothing of value from him. It is like a child who would rather go hungry than eat a meal not entirely to her liking. Hence, we overlook the good in our partner and what he has to offer. Our grievance-file gives us an opportunity to feel deprived by our partner’s faults, as if his faults existed solely to starve us emotionally and make our lives miserable. In other words, harping on your partner’s faults provides you with the justification you secretly seek in order to hold on to feeling hurt, disappointed, and deprived.
Storing grievance-files also serve the purpose of discounting and devaluing our partner so we can feel superior, compensating for our tendency to feel incompetent and inferior. Often, we waste much energy arguing over who is more flawed and whose flaws are more damaging.
Such files also create distance from your partner and are used to avoid the unfamiliar, uncomfortable feeling of being close and intimate. Jenny, for instance, tended to pick the worst time to focus on Don’s weaknesses. Just as he was prepared to make love, she wanted to discuss the supposedly ineffective way he had handled a salesperson at their furniture store. Not surprisingly, their chance for passion and love fizzled out.
Confronting your partner with his flaws rarely results in a positive response. Your partner most likely will resist even more determinedly any reforms you may be trying to institute. Your partner is more likely to respond positively to your needs when she feels good about herself and not when she’s just received a critical evaluation from you.
That doesn’t mean we should never register a complaint. It means that when we have a gripe, we should first examine why our partner’s behavior is bothering us so much. What feelings are being triggered by the behavior? Could it be that we are emotionally attached to these feelings and thereby ready unconsciously to replay and recycle them in daily life?
Consider how you may be emotionally contributing to the situation. If you sincerely believe your partner needs to consider something he has overlooked, it is far more productive to explain to him how you feel about his behavior or how you are interpreting what is happening. Politely and specifically discuss with your partner what he or she can do to make things easier for you.
To make matters more challenging, we often imagine that other people look at our partner and see his or her faults the same way we do. We may imagine that others are rejecting of our partner for these alleged faults. When we believe others see our partner as irresponsible, inadequate, or not attractive enough, we identify with our partner who represents a reflection of our own tendency to see ourselves as inadequate.
The way you see your partner is the same way you see yourself and expect others to see you. For instance, if you see your partner as mediocre or boring, that is probably how you regard yourself. And vice-versa: if you regard yourself as boring or mediocre, that is likely how you see your partner or imagine how others see your partner. This is another reason we go on campaigns to reform our partner. If he changes (so the logic goes), we will feel better about ourselves because he will make us look good. We want our partner to do what we won’t do for ourselves and what we cannot allow ourselves to be.
There are several patterns or defenses that serve as vehicles for gathering material for our grievance-file. These include, in particular, projection, transference, seeing our partner through our parents’ eyes, and other forms of blaming. I have already mentioned these defenses, and in this chapter I strive to explain in more detail how they work. Remember, if we are fooled by our defenses, we will keep repeating old painful patterns.
The Problem of Projection
It surprises us to discover that the character flaws we hate so much in our partner are often the flaws we are loathe to see in ourselves. It is easy to point out our partner’s defects while blinding ourselves to our own. The process of externalizing our unconscious feelings and judgments about ourselves and others is called projection.
When we project emotionally on to our partner, we will, say, accuse our partner of infidelity when that is exactly the temptation we have been toying with. We will complain about our partner’s lack of assertiveness as we are denying the same lack in ourselves. We will imagine our partner is angry with us when the real problem is the anger we ourselves are harboring towards him. We will become exasperated with our partner’s fears and doubts, mainly because they may be mirroring our own.
What you hate in your partner is likely what you hate (without knowing it) in yourself. Judgments we make about someone else can be saying something essential about how we judge ourselves. Understanding projection may be vital to the understanding of why you suffer so much with respect to your partner’s flaws.
Here’s an example of projection. Lloyd frequently told his wife, Tina, “You let people walk all over you; you never stand up to anyone or state what you want.” However, Tina just as often accused Lloyd of the same trait. Both were projecting their own passivity on to the other. I had each write out a list of examples of their passive behaviors and the ways they submitted to others. I also had them discuss the origins of their passivity in their childhood relationships with their parents. Lloyd and Tina became more understanding and supportive of each other when each was able to see and acknowledge his and her own passive traits.
Projection enables us to avoid facing our own self-doubt, self-negation, and emotional liabilities. Lacking insight, these shortcomings remain a part of us regardless of how valid our accusations may be toward our partner. Focusing on the flaws of our partner gives us a wonderful opportunity to deny our own ongoing self-condemnation and to divert our attention from our lack of self-appreciation. This doesn’t mean our partner is innocent of the flaws we see in him; it simply means we are blind to the truth of our emotional situation as we externalize (project) our unconscious feelings and judgments toward ourselves on to others. Without being aware of it, all of us are in a continual process of projecting what we feel and think on to others.
Not only do we project our character flaws, we also project our value system. Sometimes we do not consider the possibility that others may not share our same value system or interests. Have you noticed that we often give as presents what we want or what we value? We give what is important to us, what we like, and if the other person doesn’t seem to appreciate it or respond in kind, we can feel hurt …
It’s quite natural that what might be important to you is not necessarily important to your partner. Still, many of us take it personally and feel rejected or invalidated when our partner doesn’t seem to appreciate or share our values or interests. To nourish affection and harmony, it is vital to learn about our partner’s values and interests without trying to change them to fit our own. Differences are just that, differences, and not a judgment or an evaluation of you and what you believe in.
Much of what we perceive in the world, including our partner, is subject to emotional or irrational interpretations resulting from unresolved inner conflicts and past conditioning. We see what we want to see and deny what is unpleasant to us. Consequently, our interpretations often take precedence over the facts of a situation, as we see our problems or issues in ways that validate our own perspectives and mirror our feelings toward ourselves …
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society, and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.