A common way we get into trouble in intimate relationships is through projection. We project onto our partner how we think they should be or act, usually through the lens of how we learned to be and act from our parents. We may have a fantasy of the ideal partner, or ideal behaviors we want from our partner, and we hold them to these unattainable projections. The result is disappointment for both parties. Your partner only knows how to be themselves and will resent you if they are seen in and treated through idealized expectations. Thus, there needs to be space to allow your partner to be who they are. You can’t force them to be different, but you can appreciate them for who they are. This is the foundation of relationship health.
To take an example in my own marriage, my wife Jessica is more social than I am. Although I usually enjoy social gatherings and parties, I reach a time limit and want to leave much sooner than she does. If I view her though my projection that socializing can’t possibly be that fun after a while, I become frustrated and think that she wants to stay simply to annoy me. However, if I see her without my projection and appreciate her for her uniqueness — she simply is more social than I am — I am able to stay at the party without resentment towards her. For her, if she is able to see me without her projection — that socializing is always fun, and I don’t want to have fun — rather than through my uniqueness — I simply run out of steam quicker — she is able to leave earlier without resentment towards me. As a result, we are more likely to take care of each other as well as appreciate that we are both trying our best.
One way to untangle you and your partner from projections is through the practice of appreciation. Appreciation means valuing your partner for who they are and not what you think they should be. It means accepting your partner in their own uniqueness and with their inherent imperfections. For Jessica and me, our work is to appreciate our differences in social situations (as well as others). What works for me, may not work for her. This creates space for understanding that your partner is not trying to upset you on purpose.
Here are some simple reflections that foster appreciation:
- What are some of my partner’s unique positive traits?
- How have I benefited from those positive traits?
- How has my partner made me a better person?
- In what ways have I grown while with my partner?
Relationship expert John Gottman encourages such active reflection on our partner’s positive traits to foster appreciation. He writes, “This active focusing on your partner’s merits allows you to nurture gratefulness for what you have instead of resenting what is missing” (Gottman, 2015, p. 79). This is an important practice, especially since we have a tendency to focus on the negative and sometimes miss the positive.
If you and your partner are in a difficult place, it may be wise to start small. You can say, “Thank you for making coffee this morning.” Or, “Thank you for picking up the kids.” You can take this practice further by communicating an appreciation of specific traits of your partner. For example, “Thank you for being thoughtful by making coffee, and thank you for being dependable by picking up the children.” Appreciation creates the foundation for relationship health, and it is always better to start building or rebuilding the foundation little by little than not at all.
Another reflection practice to counter projection and foster appreciation is Naikan. Naikan practice originated in Japan and is designed to cultivate appreciation and humility with three simple questions (here geared to your relationship):
- What have I received from my partner?
- What have I given to my partner?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused my partner?
Such reflections make it difficult to relate to your partner based on projections of an ideal partner or ideal behavior. It grounds you in the reality of the natural give and take of relationships (Kreck, 1995). It can cultivate humility by reminding us that we can always be a better partner. We may also begin to appreciate our partner’s commitment, as they stay with us despite the troubles and difficulties we inevitably cause.
To begin with these exercises, I suggest writing out your responses. Writing and journaling provide something more concrete than purely mental reflection, and also help to organize and explore our thoughts. Taking this further, you might consider sharing your written reflections with your partner. When was the last time you expressed such appreciation to the person you love? Perhaps you can even write and read a letter of gratitude to your partner using the above reflections as guidelines.
Appreciation practice does not mean putting on rose-colored glasses. It means acknowledging a side of reality that is often missed or taken for granted. By embracing appreciation practice, you can not only combat projection, but build a firm foundation for relationship health.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A
Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Harmony.
Kreck, G. (1995). Naikan: The Practice of Attention and Reflection. Middlebury, VT: ToDo