"Gotta split."


Remember the Object Relations Theorists? (No? Well, I guess it’s a case of “Out of sight, out of mind.”) These guys cannot be accused of “circling the lamppost” to discover the whys and wherefores of human behavior–they go way back into the “dark alley.” Some, like the Kleinians, go back up the birth canal, to “study” a baby’s in utero experience. [How? By doing Regression Therapy with grown-ups, to help them “recall” these early times.] The Beauty Part? Who could ever disprove such personal, pre-verbal memories? [A twin, I suppose. There’s a dissertation topic, there.]

Others observe actual babies–tracking their eye movements, their facial expressions, the various vocalizations they make–not unlike ethologists’ studies of other primates, dogs, rats, or wolves. In both kinds of research, there is alot of inference going on–alot of projection of the observer’s thoughts & feelings onto the subjects under investigation. Don’t you just bet? So, caveat legens.

You are an infant, lying in your crib in your nursery, down the hall from your parents’ room. [This is in 1940s America or Western Europe. That’s how it was back then. None of your Family Bed sleeping arrangements, except for the very poor.] You have already cried several times, and your Good Mother has shown up, to do the needful–feed you, change you, rock you back to sleep, whatever. The last time you cried, however, your Bad Mother showed up–with lightening bolts coming out of her head! That was scary! [Fear] Now, you need Room Service again. How can you possibly risk the reappearance of Bad Mother? Maybe you’ll just try to hold out a little longer, but Oy, veh! The pain & suffering you’re enduring! It shouldn’t happen to a dog! So you develop a Las Vegas philosophy: “Life is a crap-shoot. It’s even money each time, whether Good Mother or Bad Mother will show up. I’m feeling lucky, so here goes. ‘Baby needs new shoes!'” This early defense mechanism, wherein necessary-but-sometimes-angry-people are split into two people [one Good, one Bad], is called Splitting.

In the best of all possible childhoods, more often Good Mother shows up, than Bad Mother; so that by the time the kid is a toddler, he is brave enough to do a little research of his own. What if, while he’s hanging out with Good Mother, he reaches up and tries to twist her lips off? Unless she has read too many books on child rearing forbidding her ever to say a discouraging word to her child, she will eventually–having endured her limit of pain & suffering at the hands of her beloved offspring–turn into Bad Mother, right before the toddler’s very eyes, and tell him to “Knock it off!” If she believes this mild rebuke will scar him for life, she may try to hang in there and display the patience of a saint. This makes the toddler think, “It’s no use. I’ll have to inflict more pain,”which he will then do, in the name of research. On the other hand, if the books mother has read suggest giving the toddler [and herself] a Time Out, and she flees the room to compose herself, when she re-enters as Good Mother, the toddler will be none the wiser; and he will take longer to give up the defense of splitting. In the best case scenario, Bad Mother stays onscreen with the kid and allows him to charm her back into Good Mother, by telling her “Sorry,” gently patting her aching lips, and so on. Variations on this experiment must be repeated daily for about a year, for the kid to “get” that Mother is “two, two, two Moms in one” [sometimes in a good mood, sometimes in an angry mood]. In the worst case scenario, if Bad Mother appearances far outnumber Good Mother ones, the kid will never have the courage to try the lip-twisting experiment, and so will have to keep the primitive defense of splitting, with everyone he encounters.

This rather far-fetched theory became plausible to me with my first child case @ the Psychological Counseling Center @ Columbia. A 5-year-old girl I’ll call “Sonya” kept complaining to me that I had just ignored her in the corridor, before each session in the playroom. Reluctantly, I came to realize that she was making the same “mistake” my boyfriend [another grad student in our class of 12] had–to find me interchangeable with the only other shicksa in our year, Grace. In the interests of psychotherapeutic progress, I persuaded Grace to stand beside me in the corridor, for “Sonya” to compare & contrast us, saying stuff like, “See? Grace wears Gloria Steinem glasses, and I don’t. She’s wearing corduroys and I’m wearing a long skirt. See?” Then “Sonya” and I went to the playroom, where I expected to experience the joys of a child who had given up splitting. “That was so cool, how you stood beside yourself like that!” she said. [It’s not a one-trial learning kind of thing.]

Individuals whose childhood prevented them from doing the “terrible twos” research necessary to integrate the Two Faces of Mother into one person–capable of both positive and negative emotions–are those with a tendency for Black & White thinking. [Very little chiaroscuro on their projective test answers.] They tend to regard someone new that they meet [especially a potential Significant Other] as “Perfect,” right up until the first time that the person puts a foot wrong–at which point they become an “Evil Doer.” Do you see where I’m going with this? Human beings are not either Perfect or Evil Doers. They’re light & shadow, a little of both. Just like Dear Old Mom.

By the way, many authors of books on dog training have characterized the emotional make-up of a dog as “part wolf, and part toddler.” A little of both.

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Filed under black and white thinking, ethology, magical thinking, object relations theory

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