issues that can be considerably more important than money to the people involved: questions of
identity, of saving face, of fighting for one’s honor or one’s dignity, of finding one’s voice and
one’s empowerment, of saying no to abuse, or neglect, or dishonesty, of holding onto one’s own
sense of self, of fighting to be free to be who one truly is, and so on. These more hidden issues,
that go to the heart of who we believe we are and of what really matters most to us, are the ones
that get people really worked up, even to the point of their seemingly transforming into someone
unrecognizable. We have probably all heard stories of the sane, reasonable spouse, or sibling, or
business partner, suddenly turning into Mr. or Ms. Hyde when a parent dies, when a spouse asks
for a divorce, when a business partner is underperforming, etc. Why does this happen, and how
can people best deal with it?
There are at least two things going on that can explain these phenomena. First, as Freud
explained over a century ago, people in intimate relationships tend to superimpose onto their
intimate adult relationships unconscious traces of their relationships with their earliest
caregivers. The technical term for this is “transference,” and the earlier childhood relationships
that are transferred are called “object relations.” What this boils down to is: not only do we tend
to unconsciously see our spouse or boss as our parent or older sibling, but we also tend to see
ourselves as the infant/child who was in relationship with them. And the infant we used to be
often had painful issues with these childhood figures: abuse and/or neglect; feeling unloved or
unheard or unseen or unvalued; not getting our needs met in a consistent fashion; feeling that our
caregivers’ love was conditional, or our love was rejected; and so forth. Whether these slights
were perceived accurately or not, the infant took them to be true, and felt them to be truly
traumatic and horrifically painful events. On the other end of those Olympian figures, infants
often felt small, helpless, and weak, as well as enraged, heart broken, and terrified. If these
childhood conflicts have not been worked through in therapy—and usually they have not—they
will show up in our conflicts and in our divorces.
Under the stress of conflict, people will unconsciously act out the role of the angry, unjustly-treated three year old, and view the other person as the ogre-like parent or sibling who humiliated and hurt them. The stakes are then no
longer about who keeps the house, but about who finally gets to say no the abuse and abandonment of their forgotten childhood.
The second thing that may be going on has to do with what the infant does in response to these
early traumas: the creation of what Winnicott called a “false self.” When an infant is not greeted
and nurtured with sufficient attunement, valuation and love, it perceives this both as traumatic
and as a threat to its very being. And so, in order to protect itself from further harm, it develops
a “false” self—one that meets the needs of one’s caregivers rather than one’s own, and protects
the “true” self, which must be kept hidden and protected.
This happens in two parts.
First what develops is a “deficient self,” which is comprised of all the negative self-beliefs that help explain
what happened: I am unlovable, I am stupid, I am bad, I am selfish, etc. You can imagine how
painful it must be for any child to believe this about themselves. In fact, the amount of pain that
the deficient self generates is intolerable, and as a result, each child develops a “compensatory
self,” which is comprised of qualities they would like to believe about themselves: I am capable,
I am lovable, I am talented, I am kind, etc. The compensatory self becomes what Carl Jung
called the persona—the mask we show to the outer world, and behind which we hide what we
secretly continue to believe to be true about ourselves: the deficient self. As adults go through
painful separations and losses, tremendous pressure is placed on the viability of the
compensatory self, threatening to shatter it and reveal the deficient self underneath. This
pressure often shows itself during mediation, and a lot of the surprising, negative behavior that
emerges can be explained by people’s desperate attempts to keep the compensatory self intact
and keep the deficient self hidden from view.
All of this is quite complex, and usually way more than the participants themselves can deal with
given the stresses and strains of being in a divorce process with an intimate other. In order to
successfully navigate these complicated psychological structures and dynamics, the help of a
skilled mental health professional (a divorce coach) is essential. The coach can help identify
these psychological dynamics when they arise, and in compassionate, non-jargony language help
steer people out of the minefield of confusion and hurt and into the light of a clearer, more
objective understanding of what is actually happening. Freed, even temporarily, from the
projections of unresolved inner conflicts, the people are then able to see each other more or less
as who they are, rather than as roles in their respective hidden inner dramas. They can then more
easily turn their attention to the issues at hand that need to be resolved in the divorce, and
work together in a more constructive, objective, and dispassionate way.
Stephen H. Sulmeyer, J.D., Ph.D. is a mediator and divorce coach in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Photo credit: Nathan Cowley from Pexels