It Takes Two – A Way To Understand Relationship Conflicts


They bring out our needs, anxieties, and conflicts with people from our past – parents, friends and former partners. Our relationships with our partners are colored by our own personal legacies. We often react to our partners as if they were someone else – and most of the time this causes conflict in the relationship. After all, when we entered into a primary relationship we expected love, nurturance, and validation just for being who we are. A relationship, we usually imagine, should provide a safe zone where our partners cherish us for expressing our own unique qualities. This is a simple expectation. Why, then, does it seem so hard to achieve?

How we perceive our partners is influenced by how we learned to deal with other people in the past. This process can go back into early childhood, even to infancy.  Indeed, our earliest primary attachment to a caregiver – a mother, a father, or another adult – can have an effect on how we deal with other people for the rest of our lives.  For example, if our earliest experiences taught us to trust in the world, then we are likely, barring any other event that leads to distrust, to take a trusting attitude toward people throughout our lives. Conversely, if a child is never shown live during the earliest stages of life, it may be a challenge during adulthood to learn how to experience love.  Early experiences from childhood can have a powerful effect later one. (This is a strong argument for treating children well.)

Children experience both good and bad in the world. Plenty of good experiences, like love and trust, feel comfortable, and produce a positive self-image in children – a positive way of defining themselves. The bad experiences, though, create feelings of conflict and frustration. These negative experiences also go into the self-definition that the child is developing. But they don’t feel compatible with the more positive feelings, so, according to one theory, the child projects them onto somebody else. (Projection means finding in someone else the qualities that you don’t want to accept within yourself – like blaming your partner for being controlling when you are the one who has the tendency to want to control.)


It is not only early childhood experiences that cause us to project our unacceptable feelings onto someone else. Friends can have the same effect, as can partners from our previous relationships. This is a process that happens throughout our lives. How many times have we heard someone say, “Treat me for who I am – I am not your former partner”.

The major point to keep in mind is that we project our own problematic feelings onto another person. If, for example, we have an issue with the feelings of jealousy, we will project our own jealousy onto someone else, and perceive them as being the jealous one! This is because we can’’ tolerate seeing ourselves as having a problem with jealousy – and it’s easier to attribute it to someone else. In other words, we feel unable to correct the problem in ourselves, so we focus on this issue in the other person. The way out of this, of course, is to become aware of this projection and understand how it affects us.

When couples experience conflict in their relationship, projections are often the root of the problem. If we are living with our own conflicts and are unable to make any headway in understanding them, it’s as if we look for the problem in the other person.  In fact, at a certain level, we may actually seek out partners who have the qualities that we find problematic within ourselves. If we have difficulty in asserting ourselves, for example, and we get frustrated and angry with other people for running over us, we may seek out partners who do just that – people who dominate us.