Separation and the Use of "Splitting"

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By Alan Frankel

When we hear the word splitting in the context of a separation or divorce, most of us probably think of "splitting up". I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce another use of the word that is particularly pertinent to people who are going through a separation or divorce.

Splitting can also be thought of as a word that describes a psychological dynamic (a defense mechanism), in which a person tends to see things, especially other people, as either "all good" or "all bad", or "black or white", with no shades of gray. In an odd and interesting way, this serves to protect oneself from ambivalence, or mixed feelings, about self and others. When people utilize splitting in relation to their marriage, for example, they will tend to see their spouse as either "a saint or a devil", because it is too painful to see him or her as having both good and bad qualities simultaneously. It is a way to try to make a person feel whole, or "all good" about themselves in relation to others.

In a separation or divorce situation, splitting frequently takes place in an unconscious effort to protect us from feeling bad about ourselves...e.g. “I did all that I could, it’s really her fault!" In an effort to protect ourselves from feeling like a failure, from a drop in self-esteem, or from responsibility for a marriage not working out, we sometimes "blame the other guy" completely. It's a way of making ourselves feel better at the expense of the other spouse. As splitting continues it can actually snowball, so the end result can be that the "ex" is perceived as being some kind of hideous monster.

"So what's the harm if it makes me feel a little better?" you might ask. One problem that often arises is that people end up staying very unhappily but powerfully connected to each other through fighting. Hatred actually keeps the couple bonded to one another. When they can begin to let go of splitting and the rage that ensues, they'll be in a stronger position to sooner move forward with their lives.

If the separating couple are parents, their use of splitting can become big trouble for their kids. When divorcing parents start to see each other as "the enemy", they are destined to put their children in a real bind. Splitting will polarize them further and further, until they start to see each other as monsters. This unfortunately can lead people into custody battles, which are almost invariably destructive to everyone involved, but especially to children. They are also usually quite stressful, expensive, and can take years to complete. I have often heard parents who have suffered in these battles later say that they sorely regretted it, and that the only people who "won" were their lawyers.

There is actually a lot of support for the use of splitting from friends and family who may say things like "I never really liked him anyway", or "I never understood what you saw in her", and the ever popular line: "Honestly, you'll be better off without him!" Although these comments are usually well-meaning, they are not usually very helpful, for they tend to exacerbate the splitting.

When in the hands of litigating attorneys in the adversarial system, people can feel vindicated as once again they are supported with the notion that "I am good, and my ex-spouse is bad". However, as the splitting takes hold, it’s like pouring gasoline on the fire, and it will usually boomerang back at the person. For every "zinger comment" or allegation, there's sure to be a counter-allegation, and off it goes. This can lead to an all-out war that makes everyone suffer in the long run.

Kids need both a mom and a dad whenever possible. When splitting takes hold, it can lead to a situation in which the mom and dad start to hate each other so much, it can't help but spill over into the child's life. Sometimes kids get caught in loyalty struggles, where they feel that if they want to see one parent, they are betraying the other parent by doing so. Kids need to be able to feel that they can still love both parents, even if they no longer love each other.

I recently heard of a couple that got ensnared in a particularly nasty custody battle. Only two years ago, they could still be heard saying things about each other like "I know she's a good mom", and "I know he's a good father", despite the fact that they were getting divorced. Sadly, when splitting took over and their litigating lawyers fed the flames, a war ensued that led them into a very ugly custody battle over their 10 year old daughter. They now see each other as "vile scum" unfit to walk the face of the earth, never mind be the other parent of their daughter! Not surprisingly, the daughter is utterly miserable; she is an unhappy, angry, depressed girl who rarely smiles and has developed a behavior problem in school. From what I hear, they have squandered well over $100,000 between them in legal fees thus far, and the war continues with no end in sight.

How could some of this have been avoided? For starters, I think people can prevent things from snowballing if they are at least aware that splitting is taking place. Also, try to keep in mind that no matter how angry you may be at your ex-spouse, open hatred, warfare and vindictive action against him or her will inevitably hurt your children a lot.

If possible, "changing the frame" can help a great deal. Instead of thinking of either yourself or your ex-spouse as a failure or "damaged goods", try re-focusing on the relationship as having not worked out. This can help people manage to still see each other as human with some redeeming qualities, even though they may be feeling hurt and angry. It can also help preserve self-esteem without resorting to the use of splitting.

In mediation, we emphasize separating the spousal role which is ending, from the parental role which is continuing. In an effort to make an ongoing parental arrangement workable, you will need to preserve some sense of your ex-spouse as a person that you may no longer love, but who is still human and not a monster. This will help your children a lot, but will also help you move forward so that you can get on with your own life.

Alan L. Frankel, L.C.S.W. is a psychotherapist and divorce mediator. He specializes in helping children and families undergoing a divorce situation. He is in private practice in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. Al Frankel can be reached by telephone at (914)666-0654, or by e-mail at
His web site is