Splitting – extremes in relationships

I was introduced to the concept of splitting during my time at Harvard. One of the courses I took as a part of my MBA was about team dynamics, and the professor briefly touched upon it. But this concept has really stuck with me, and recently I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Wikipedia defines splitting as “the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole”. Simply put, this means that we would rather see the world as black or white and also categorize each person’s actions as one or the other. While there is a lot more theory here, and I am by no means an expert, what I find truly intriguing is the application of this principle to human relationships. It is especially evident in your relationship with your partner – when one person takes an extreme stand on something, the other is automatically induced to support the other extreme. Think back to any disagreement you had with your partner – if he/she stated that they felt strongly about something, you would have started feeling uncomfortable and would most likely have started defending the opposite point of view. My interpretation of the theory is that extreme positions incite us to bucket the opinion, and the person, in the “black” category, and ourselves in the “white”. When in reality, we may actually be quite neutral about the topic.

I found this so interesting that I’ve been exploring it’s application in my relationships with different people. With colleagues, for example, if I get very passionately supportive about an idea, I will most often see a lukewarm reaction, at best. However, if I give a slight nudge and pretend to be less enthusiastic than I may actually be feeling at the time, I’ve seen that at most times people open up and exhibit what they really feel.

The most fascinating is the possible application of this theory to a parent-child relationship. Now this is a big hypothesis on my part, with no scientific backing whatsoever (actually, none of my analysis above has any!) But here it is – if one or both parents exhibit an extreme characteristic in their personality, the child would tend to display the opposite trait. For example, if one or both parents are big extroverts and highly talkative and social, the child would tend to be an introvert.

There is so much of human behavior that this simple theory can explain – it really is amazing. And so many ways to apply it to make our relationships smoother, stronger and less stressful.

4 thoughts on “Splitting – extremes in relationships

  1. It does sound interesting and a little convincing as well. At least the observations strike a cord with lots of personal experiences and hence are worth a serious try.

    But then, at times it may amount to deceiving the other person into believing that you are sort of neutral where as in reality you are not. Wouldn’t their opening up be the result of this manipulated impression?

  2. I see your point. I suppose the argument is not to manipulate or deceive, but to make people comfortable enough to be honest, and not take an extreme position because they are defensive. I think it’s a little bit about tempering yourself to create room, so to speak.

  3. The human brain tends to connect new information to what it already knows. I guess that’s how we memorize most of our stuff. In the parent-child example, parents are used as a reference to assess the child’s ability, and — in some unfortunate cases — child’s identity. Who knows — compared to a different child, the first child may be an extrovert?

    Sure, a mind’s categorization of people and their actions can influence its own decisions/actions. And it is also a tendency of the human brain to remain balanced, esp. when confronted with extreme situations. But to say that white will induce black or vice versa in onlooker’s mind is kind of a stretch. May be the observer is trying to cancel-out extreme white with a temporary black position so as to remain neutral in his mind.

    That said, do you think Obama or Modi would have had such successful campaigns had it not been for their verve or ability to inspire? In a work environment, it would be foolhardy to go into a scheme without support, esp. when an enthusiastic person before you appears to know quite a bit. The regular safe approach is to go back, study and then come back when you are somewhat on the same page. In which case being “passionately supportive” about an idea will do more good than bad.

    And while I’m at it, I believe not all form of deceptions are bad or evil. Examples of this can be found in the history, incl. the Mahabharatha — where none other than Lord Shri Krishna creates several deceptions, not to mention the one, that involved defeating Gurudev Dronachariya for the greater good. I’m an atheist but I see no harm in learning from the best.

    Nice post.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, RS. I see your point in the Obama-Modi example. I suppose leadership is a different construct – we’re desperately looking for a confident leader with a passionate, strong point of view so we can submit ourselves to them and follow them blindly. The splitting theory applies more to relationships that are closer home, so to speak. In most such relationships, we want to have the power to have independent opinions, to exercise choice. And taking a position that is different from the one the other person has gives us the feeling of exercising that choice, even if we might actually be closer to theirs in an unbiased, neutral environment. This also works with your comment about people trying to neutralize the situation in their head. But however you look at it, me taking a strong position induces the other person to take an equally strong, different one – even though that may not necessarily be where they stand.

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