Plato thought what we see in the physical world is a dim reflection of the true ideal thing. For example circular objects are crude approximations to the ideal perfect circle. Platonic analysis aims to understand the physical world in terms of the ideals that capture the real essence that is dimly reflected in physical existence. — from here
It’s not very often I get to break out dead Greek philosophers before I finish my first coffee of the day. I’ve been reminded recently of a profound and repetitive pattern in relationship work that definitely gets in the way of effective intimacy, and that is the projection of some form of idealized partner in between us and the real, living, breathing, flawed human being(s) we’re partnered with.
The core of the Platonic ideal is that what we experience through the lenses of our flawed human-world existence, is simply a pale copy of an Ideal Version that exists on another plane to which we have no access. (Fans of Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay may be familiar with his “stacked worlds” in which all his novel settings are but pale copies in varying removes from the “perfect realm” of Fionavar.) I had opportunity recently to observe in action a series of client behaviours that reminded me that we sometimes similarly carry in our minds an ideal version of our partners that causes us significant frustration or distress when the reality and the ideal fall out of sync.
“My partner just never behaves the way I expect them to!”
“Why can’t they just be the better person I believe they can be??”
“I tried to change them.”
For better or for worse, most of us carry some kind of “romantic ideal partner” in our heads. This is the basic shape of the partner we wish to have, a perfect fit for all our needs and wants, the mold into which we then try to fit any human partners we acquire. Sometimes we do a reasonable job of adjusting our expectations down from that idealized, “perfect version” to fit the actual human we wake up to in the mornings, but sometimes we can’t let go of the ideals enough to fit ourselves in with this other imperfect human being.
(For the record, this happens almost as often with parents projecting their dreams and ideals onto their children as it does between romantic partners, and works out about as well as you’d think, when children fail to absorb and conform to those projections. This post concerns itself with the adult romantic version of the projection dynamic.)
There are all kinds of conversation triggers that indicate the presence of an idealized blockade. The sample quotes above are some of the more obvious ones I’ve encountered. Often we uncover a sense of what the speaker thinks or believes the Other COULD be, if only they were someone other than their imperfect selves. This method of projecting the idealized Other into a relationship is an absolute obstacle to authenticity and intimacy. If we insist on only interacting with the idealized Other, we set ourselves up for a great deal of frustration. Unsurprisingly, significant tension and eventual disconnect are what most commonly spool out from trying to force a partner to conform to our ideals (this is a major underpinning of Wexler’s “broken mirror syndrome”, for example) without a great deal of negotiation and consent.
There are a lot of theories swirling around the question of WHY we adhere to the ideal of the Other. Some theorists suggest we adapt our early, new-relationship-energy-fueled perceptions that our new partners are perfect and flawless into deep yearnings rooted in our earliest caregivers, looking for the perfect union or synthesis of need and provision on all levels. We carry an invisible internal model of that perfect provision:
As emotional bonding with our first caregiver follows us throughout our whole life and the child we carry inside us cries for love, feeling the need to love and be loved, we end up idealizing the other person without understanding it. We subconsciously want to revive the archetypal bond with our mother and more specifically the first year of our life[…] We project onto the person in front of us everything we want and miss. The empirical knowledge we have for the other person is then getting distorted, complemented, and enriched at will, namely according to our personal needs. Our partner is unintentionally turned into all the things we need him to be, things usually far away from what he really is. — Iro Dimitriou, “Looking for the Idealized Other
Spiritual theorists suggest it is a form of humanity’s drive to seek reunification with a divine Other that takes the shape of seeking “completion of self” through bonding with idealized Other:
Each is loved more profoundly in the ideal Other because each’s true self is realized through its unity with this ideal beloved; each’s agency is unified in this ideal Other, the abiding attention by whom, and the abiding intention of whom, purifies, joins, and sustains the manifold interactions of the universal community. — James Hart, The Person and the Common Life: Studies in a Husserlian Social Ethics
In both cases, we seek the ideal Other as a means of completing something in ourselves, addressing our internal needs in the most satisfying way possible. The ideal Other is the partner we desire above all else, the perfection we feel we deserve. The problems arise in confronting the uncomfortable truth that neither we nor our partners *are* perfect. How do we manage ourselves and our relationships when we realize that our partners cannot perfectly meet our needs?
In a projection scenario, what happens is that the disappointed partners continue to superimpose the idealized version between themselves and the source of their frustration. They come into the counselling offices seeking help with coping but what they really want is the secret trick to make partners conform perfectly to our needs and wants. “Tell me how to make my partner change!”
The problem isn’t necessarily that our partners won’t change, so much as it is our own stubborn refusal to accept what *IS* over the what *COULD BE*. I often ask my clients, “Knowing everything that you know about your partner right here and now, today, including all the thorny parts that are driving you nutty, is this someone you WANT to be in relationship with?”, because if someone can’t separate out what they see in real-time from the projection of that unrealistic Platonic Ideal, then we have a problem that isn’t about the relationship so much as it is an unyielding outcome attachment. If partners are only allowed to occupy the limited, confining space we make for them in our idealizations, then we’re not really allowing our partners or ourselves to be authentically in the relationship with our wounds, warts, and war stories. We may feel we deserve better. We refuse to let go of what the Other SHOULD BE, in our opinions, to the detriment of learning to see what really is.
It’s like getting into a relationship with someone, stapling a mask of a superhero to their face, and then never allowing them to be anyone BUT that mask. The implications and repercussions of any failure to conform to that constrained Ideal include personal dysregulation and overall destabilization of the relationship across a spectrum of severity.
This is the very antithesis of vulnerability, the core component of intimacy. It completely abnegates the potential for authenticity all around. The message we send by sticking to our projected Ideal Other is, “Who you really are is not good enough.” And if that’s a message you send to your flawed and human partners… why are you in relationship with them, then?
Working with clients to dismantle the projections is difficult work. We have to consider and discover (as best we can) where the need for the projection originates. We don’t really care where the projection itself comes from; why a client refuses to relinquish it, is the more important therapeutic question; like many defensive mechanisms, it was likely created to serve a purpose, but that original purpose may now be obstructing paths to mature relational intimacies. Being open to the less-ideal qualities of our partners means learning to sit with, and examine, the tensions and discomforts generated by encountering places where they are not what we expect, or not what we want. We balance what we know of them with what we know of our own needs, and we consider how to explore those intersections where the disconnect seems most problematic. What has been communicated and what has not? Is the message articulated effectively? Can we determine any obvious (or discoverable) blocks to reception of our connection attempts on the partner’s side? If our standard response to a partner’s failure to accept our idealized Other is to become critical, or manipulative to the end of forcing compliance and conformity with our needs, partners may understandably become resistant to their partners, or at least to their projections, over time. That potential resistance has to be taken into account when shaping expectations for any restoration phase.
Teaching clients how to let go of their projections, however, means teaching them how to open themselves up to the experience of the Authentic Other. We do this by reintroducing curiosity as a tool for navigating the rough waters between “What We Thought We Knew” (the projection) and “What Is Really In Front of Us” (the authentic other). We rebalance emotional investments by moving effort from “I must force you to comply so I don’t feel insecure” (Harriet Lerner’s “You change so I feel better!” dysfunctional relationship’s rallying cry) to, “How do *I* see, and choose to relate to, the actual person in front of me?”. We challenge clients to be better with (which is NOT the same as “be GOOD with”) the instability of dealing with another autonomous individual by strengthening their own internal sense of Self.
But always, we come back to breaking through the projection. We hold that there is a place to value ideals, but on a day-to-day basis, we have to relate effectively to the *real* Other who occupies that space with us. We can continue to choose to wield projections as obstructions to intimacy, or we can choose to explore and develop vulnerable connection.
What do you choose?
(There’s a whole related conversation I have with the *partners* of those who get stuck in patterns of Idealized Othering, on how to stand their ground and defend boundaries against the projections, but that’s a post topic for another day.)