The primary cause of relationship conflicts is unmet emotional needs related to developmental traumas from childhood. As a relationship becomes more intimate and feels safe, these unmet needs will begin to emerge. Of course, this is all happening at an unconscious level. Most people aren’t even aware that they have unmet needs.
So when relationship conflicts erupt, people think something bad is happening. We hear this from couples who’ve hit the wall and come to us feeling despair. Their stories have various versions, but the theme is similar: “We had a wonderful relationship in the beginning and got along so well. Then we started to get on each other’s nerves and began having fights. Now we are having trouble just being around each other.”
Sometimes people have been in conflict a long time before they seek therapy. Ongoing relationship conflicts can create a reservoir of ill-will between them that comes from holding onto grudges and resentment. In these situations, the relationship may be so damaged that they may need a break — a sort of “adult time-out.” During this period, they spend time focusing inward and reflecting on their part of the conflicts.
It’s pretty common for people who are close to each other to project onto each other during conflicts. Projections typically involve judgments about other people—how they look, how they behave, what they believe, what they are doing or saying. Having judgments about others is a way to avoid looking at parts of ourselves that we or others don’t like.
Sometimes our judgments just show up as “unclassified” emotions. We’re uncomfortable and just want the other person to change or stop their behavior. Instead of going inside and asking, “Why am I having this reaction to what X is doing?” we just blame our emotional overreaction on the other person.
A variation of this is saying to someone else, “You make me feel XXX!” No one makes us feel anything. We feel because of our inner experiences and the way that we interact with the world.
During a projection, we almost always personalize what the other person is doing. We make what they are doing a personal insult, and perceive that they are doing XX to us just to irritate us. In truth, people just do what they do for their own reasons. They don’t sit around thinking to themselves, “Hmmmm, wonder what I could do that would hurt (someone) or make (someone) upset?” No, the other person is in their own world and trying to cope with their own discomfort.
So you know you or someone else is projecting when:
- You have a 75¢ reaction to a 25¢ event
- You want someone to stop saying/doing something because it makes you uncomfortable
- You blame your intense feelings on other people
- You say, “You made me feel XXX!”
- You personalize what other people do and say
Once you understand the source of projections and how they operate, it’s important to recognize when you are using them. Use the self-inventory below to help you discover more about how you use projections.
Taking responsibility for our emotions, our unmet developmental needs and our emotional reactions is a process of “self-correction.” Most external conflict is just a reflection of our internal conflicts–things we can resolve internally. So we just project it out onto those we are closest to. Then we can see it more clearly. But the problem (unmet needs) belongs to us!
Self-correction also requires conscious efforts to change our patterned behaviors, all the things we unconsciously bring with us from our family-of-origin. We suggest reading our books to get a good understanding of the kinds of dysfunctional patterns that are anchored in our childhood relationships.
The most effective tool for self-correction is Inner Work. Our books have many inventories, self-awareness activities and other tools for self-reflection and self-correction. We also suggest you check out the BOOKS part of our website and also the Inner Work section of our site for more information.