Nancy Colier
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What to Do When Your Partner Projects Their “Stuff” Onto You

In Part 3 of this series, I want to offer some guidance for when you’re the one being projected on—those moments when your partner is accusing you of causing their old and unhealed wounds, and blaming you for stuff you know is not about you.

After a recent visit to meet with an architect to discuss remodeling their home, Jon angrily accuses his wife Anna of treating him like a child, like his input on the project and all “grown-up” decisions is irrelevant. Jon tells Anna that she was dismissive at the appointment, took away his power, and made him feel “like a nobody.”

When Anna recounts the visit, she describes how Jon, as soon as they sat down with the architect, lowered his eyes to the floor “like a beaten dog,” and went completely silent. After some time (throughout which Jon remained silent), Anna explicitly asked that he participate in this important family decision, saying that she wanted and needed his important input. While Jon agrees that Anna did in fact ask him to get involved, he stays true to his narrative and claims that his wife had already dismissed him by that point, and nothing he said would have mattered anyway.

In unpacking this interaction, and any interaction that smells like projection, it’s important to consider the history. Jon is a smart and energetic man who describes his career as one of “consistent failures.” He’s been unable to create any power or importance for himself professionally and just recently, he was passed over for yet another important job for which he thought he was qualified. Stepping back in time, Jon’s father was emotionally abusive, an aggressive bully, someone who didn’t care about or respect anyone’s thoughts or feelings besides his own. When Jon mustered the courage to voice an opinion or desire that was different from his father’s, he was humiliated and invalidated, and told that his ideas were childish, silly, and wrong.

Knowing all that, how is Anna to respond when Jon accuses her of dismissing him, and blames her for treating him like someone whose opinion doesn’t matter? What is she to do with the fact that her husband, whom she loves and whose experience of her matters, believes this bad thing about her, something so far from her own truth and contrary to what she actually feels? It’s a huge disconnect and a hard place to withstand, much less navigate.

Our first instinct, when blamed, is to defend ourselves. It’s a survival mechanism; our ego feels threatened. The intentions and actions we are being assigned feel dangerous to our sense of self. In the case of projection, they also feel unfair, untrue, and hurtful. We feel misunderstood and misjudged, and angry that our partner is refusing to take responsibility for their own stuff. And so we try to convince our partner that we’re not the bad person we’re being accused of being. And sometimes, we attack back, because we feel aggressed, and because it all feels so unfair. These are natural and instinctive responses, designed to protect us from harm; primal in that sense, but nonetheless, they do little to make the relationship better.

Responding rather than reacting when your partner (or anyone) is projecting onto you requires profound awareness, centeredness, empathy, patience, and skill. It requires a lot, but it is doable. Even if you succeed at implementing just one of these virtues and skills, it’s a huge win, a step towards growth—for you and for the relationship.

Let’s start with awareness, the essential soil from which all change grows. Awareness, for Anna, would mean recognizing that her husband’s feelings of irrelevance were there long before the architect’s meeting and are about far more than her or the event to which he’s attaching them. It would mean realizing, too, that she didn’t cause Jon’s pain and most importantly, isn’t responsible for taking it away (and couldn’t even if she tried). But at the same time, awareness means acknowledging with compassion that, regardless of how unskillfully he is expressing it, her husband is suffering and trapped in a painful storyline about his self-worth. Awareness entails being able to hold all of those truths, all at once, and still behave mindfully and with intention.

I want to be clear, however: awareness is not an opportunity to play amateur therapist or assume a position of authority in the relationship. As in, “You’re just projecting; this is your stuff; none of this is about me so deal with it on your own.” Awareness is not a weapon to be used against your partner. That would be awareness used unskillfully and unkindly, awareness used without awareness, and usually with very negative results.

This awareness is also not a green light to disown your part in the relationship. Recognizing that your partner is reliving a core wound (and blaming you for it) doesn’t mean that you may not, also, have contributed to their experience in some way. While it may be true that your partner is projecting, and also that they are choosing to be mean to you (as much as you can choose anything when deep in the trance of pain), you can, still, be curious about your own behavior. Did you in some way, perhaps unintentionally, contribute to their suffering?

When you’re aware of what your partner is emotionally carrying, you can be more sensitive and speak directly to it (as Anna did when she asked Jon for his input at the dealership). This does not mean that it’s your job to heal your partner’s pain; it isn’t. The burden is not on you to protect them from their wounds, keep them from being set off, and thereby stave off their projection. And yet, being sensitive to your partner’s wounds, what they’ve lived and suffered, is an integral part of partnership, and what we can do for each other in relationship. What makes a loving relationship loving, and different from other relationships to some extent, is that we are aware of and sensitive to each other’s wounds, and mindful to not re-wound each other in the places that hurt the most. Ultimately, it is because we care about our partner and don’t want them to suffer. Awareness, mindfully employed, is an opportunity to deepen your empathic connection with your partner (even in the face of projection).

Awareness is the first step, but what to do with your awareness becomes the real question. In Part 4 of this series, I’ll address the practice of putting awareness into action and language, moving the conversation from blindness, blame, and defensiveness to something more loving, conscious, and with the possibility of creating change. Know this too: regardless of whether your partner can hear or receive your attempts to change the relational dynamic, just trying to be more mindful and behave differently is already changing you, and in so doing, changing the relationship.

In Part 4, I will also lay out some strategies for staying separate from the accusations coming at you, grounded in your own innocence, and resisting the urge to defend yourself and hurt your partner back. And also, strategies for keeping your awareness wide when your partner’s has shrunk down into a nut, and your own heart open when your partner’s heart has sealed shut. And if that weren’t enough of a challenge, doing all of this while being accused of doing bad things you didn’t do, and being treated unfairly and unkindly. At the risk of repeating myself, I will: there’s nothing easy about any of this; it takes profound willingness, courage, intention, patience, skill, and practice. The mere attempt at staying present in the face of projection is valiant and admirable. But here’s the good news: it is doable. Stay tuned.

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