Our relationships are complicated and ever-shifting. Dynamics between couples (and extended family and friends) are highly sophisticated and challenging. One moment your relationship can be a beacon of positivity, love and affection. And just like that… in the blink of an eye… it can feel like a tornado has hit.
Every couple experiences this in one way or another. But some experience the shift between ‘excellent’ and ‘terrible’ on a frequent basis and with no clear indication as to why.
This is called “splitting”. It is something we will now explore.
What is splitting?
Splitting is an ego defence mechanism. It is frequently found within intense, volatile relationships (which you can read more about here). It is where a person (the ‘splitter’) can only view the world around them (and everyone / everything in it) as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Nuances are hard to spot, and even trickier to navigate.
The splitter makes sense of their surroundings and experiences using black and white thinking. Often, this has been the case since childhood and develops due to inconsistencies in their primary caregiver.
The term “splitting” was first coined by Ronald Fairbairn when he formulated Object Relations Theory. It is thought to begin in infancy, when a child is struggling to combine a mix of loving fulfilment and unresponsiveness within an individual caregiver. As an adult, a person who splits promotes a highly emotional and defensive state where only good or evil exist – without the nuances and grey areas that make up so much of life. This toxic attitude can quickly be contagious.
One of the symptoms of splitting is being ‘hot and cold’. And this is the focus of this article.
Hot and Cold behaviour as a defence
Being hot (loving, warm, present) and then quickly shifting to cold (absent, argumentative, emotionally switched off) can be a defence mechanism used by the splitter. It is a way of them keeping emotional distance, testing your commitment or could be a reaction to fear of the relationship or general insecurity. It can also be an intense reaction to something that has been said or done by the other party that doesn’t fully align with the splitter’s expectations.
For example. Let’s say Jo is splitting. She is married to Harvey.
Harvey and Jo are having a joyous day doing some gardening and cooking together. There has been no conflict. Everyone is happy. Harvey mentions he might see his friend Paul that evening. Jo instantly goes from smiling to angry yelling. She storms off and then stonewalls Harvey for the rest of the afternoon. She is impossible to reason with and says extreme sentences like “You don’t love me”. Harvey cancels his plans because the situation at home has gone sour very quickly, and Jo spends the evening hugging and kissing Harvey, as though nothing happened earlier.
This is splitting.
Jo was so intimidated and fearful of Harvey wanting to see someone other than her, that she switched from hot to cold in an instant.
“I hate you don’t leave me”
There are varying levels of intensity in the splitting dynamic, but in some cases, splitting can be a sign of Borderline Personality Order (BPD). People with BPD can set up an approach-avoidance conflict, a “get-away-closer” style of trying to relate to others. It is essentially them saying “I hate you don’t leave me”. Any perceived withdrawal of closeness of intimacy can be a fundamental threat to the safety of the person with BPD. It causes a whirlwind of unregulated emotion that is often cyclical between ‘get closer to me’ and ‘you’re terrible, get away”.
In Jo’s case, she could be so profoundly terrified of abandonment, that she demonises Harvey until he is back in her arms again, then causing her more future anxiety about him leaving – and so the pattern continues.
Is hot and cold behaviour abusive?
The above scenario could easily be viewed as psychological abuse towards Harvey. He became so fearful of the extreme reaction Jo was having, that he isolated himself from his friend. He was essentially manipulated due to the profound lack of communication between the pair. But we must also be sympathetic to Jo’s situation. Her inner torture and poor sense of self cannot be easy to live with or manage.
Whether you identify with Harvey or Jo, therapy can help. It can also create a safe space where ‘splitting’ is identified head on and encouraged away from the dynamic – replaced with a healthier sense of individuality and security.
Getting the support you need
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Whichever help and support you need, my pledge to you is consistent.
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