Have you ever found yourself in a situation in your relationship that is emotionally loaded but that you and your partner both have completely different experiences of? Often in my couples therapy work, the real issues lie somewhere in the middle of what each individual is saying. The reason for this is because we project our own experiences/stories/emotions onto someone else in order to protect our own unconscious. In many ways this shows up as blame shifting in relationships. We attribute our own pains, fears, and anxieties as being caused by someone else instead of recognizing that they may be caused from our own experiences.
Take a client of mine for example. Karen has a history of being in relationships that work for a short period of time before ending. This, naturally, has caused her to feel quite anxious when she is in a relationship because she worries it will end before she feels it has even really begun. Recently, in her new relationship, she found herself triggered when her boyfriend planned a weekend away with his friends. Throughout the weekend they didn’t speak much and upon his return Karen ignored all of his calls because she interpreted his silence over the weekend as him not being interested. The conflict that arose as a result has put a strain on their relationship and may end up causing the very thing she feared.
What can you do about it? Choose to ask instead of tell. When you make an assumption (as we all do) allow your assumption to be wrong. If you have needs, try to express them in advance so they can be met. In Karen’s situation, it is healthy if she feels she would like to be in contact on occasion while he is away. It is also healthy for her partner to set a boundary and let her know that when he goes away with friends, he likes to just be present with them without having to be overly connected. Through communicating properly, they can come to a middle ground that meets both their needs and allows them both to feel clear and safe on what is going on in their relationship.
Projection is really tricky to catch because the stories we create in our minds feel really real. There are many reasons why it is toxic but one of the main ones is because it causes us to get stuck in the circular pattern of blame-attack-blame-attack. Many couples come to me because they feel stuck in this pattern and want to find a new way to communicate. While communication is key in any conflict, some of that communication has to be with ourselves so that we can regulate and approach the topic from a place of curiosity and openness instead of blame.