Love and the split self

Photo of Ed Ruscha's Painting, "Sin with Olives" (1969).
Photo of “Sin with Olives,” By Ed Ruscha (1969)

The other night, I watched the movie, Take This Waltz (2011). (I try not to give the ending away, but if it’s in your movie queue, you might want to pass on reading the rest of this paragraph.) The protagonist, a young Canadian woman, is happily married, although not excited about her life.  She writes brochures when she would rather be a ‘real’ writer. She says she is “afraid of being afraid.” She meets an artist and becomes attracted. He draws an image of her as two women, cleaved — one happy, the other dark and mysterious. She is startled, even offended by the image, but also feels seen, her shadow self witnessed. The artist begins to court her dark side, the unacknowledged part of herself — the one who knows the imagined objects (and desires) her other self fears. The shadow self begins to struggle for the light. Her marriage, and her ‘lighter’ self, could be in jeopardy.

The movie explores a common drama faced in committed relationships: a seemingly perfect life threatened by conflicting love interests. Although the theme is an old one, the movie suggests a deeper interpretation: whereas the conflict often appears as a choice between two people, it also reveals a split within the individual person.

According to J. E. Cirlot, love has always been about resolving conflict and dissolving dualism:

“Traditional symbols of love always express a duality in which the two antagonistic elements are, nevertheless, reconciled.”

Love’s power to dissolve dualism has been described in terms of joining opposites, such as the masculine and the feminine, creating something whole from two halves. Although the idea is beautiful, it’s also easy to balk at. What about all the failed relationships? What about all the infidelity? What about homosexuality???

Today, at least in the West, it’s easy to change partners without feeling shame or enduring judgment for so-called “failed” relationships. This shift in attitude is not a problem (especially given the prevalence of intimate partner violence). Yet the ease and frequency at which some people de-couple may obscure the internal split self, which is avoided (if not denied) by the quest to find someone who can magically mend the split.

Early life trauma has a way of cleaving people. The child learns to look away from abuse, to ignore or to dissociate painful emotions, and to suffer in silence. Part of the self gets denied in the process, and usually the part that holds the shame of abuse.

However, splitting may be a part of all types of trauma. In their book, The Haunted Self, Onno van der Hart and colleagues wrote,

“all trauma-related disorders involve some degree of structural dissociation [and splitting], with acute stress disorder and simple PTSD being the most basic, and dissociative identity disorder (DID) being the most complex.”

Childhood is also a time when fantasy and reality blur together. In his book, The Inner World of Trauma, Donald Kalsched described the imaginal as the

“transitional space between the ego and the external world of reality,”

as well as the

“inner symbolic space between various parts of the inner world.”

As we mature, we learn to partition fantasy worlds and replace imaginal preoccupations with what society counts as “real.”

Yet we all need a safe place to escape danger and loneliness. When we are young, the imagination may be the most reliable place to flee from abusive or emotionally invalidating environments, particularly if there are no other safe places or people outside the family home. However, there are consequences when the imagination becomes primarily a place of escape. According to Kalsched:

“Repeated exposure to traumatic anxiety forecloses transitional space, kills the symbolic activity of creative imagination, and replaces it with what Winnicot calls ‘fantasizing.’ … Fantasyzing is a dissociated state, which is neither imagination nor living in external reality, but a kind of melancholic self-soothing compromise which goes on forever — a defensive use of the imagination in the service of anxiety and avoidance.”

A split can emerge between the self shown to the world and the self hidden in fantasy. There can also be many parts of the self, and not all of them acknowledged. I don’t think this represents a pathology, but rather a normal response to traumatic conditions, and sometimes even cultural norms. If anything, the West is odd in its pursuit of a unitary sense of self, as well as its sense of adulthood as a time to avoid engaging meaningfully with imaginal aspects of psyche. Many non-Western cultures acknowledge the multiplicity of selves inhabiting each person, along with the role of myth and the imaginal for guiding choices made in the “real” world. The early Greeks used their pantheon of gods and goddesses to model the multiple, often contradictory aspects of human nature that cause all of us at times to seem like multiple people.

Modern Western civilization seems to need that we split. The Judeo-Christian perception of humanity rests on the potential for separating good and evil, in effect splitting the experience of self (and preferably only inhabiting the good part). This may seem a very natural way of being, perhaps even necessary for creating a safe world. However, prior to civilization, an amoral (not immoral) understanding of the order of things guided human belief systems.

According to Stanley Diamond, with the emergence of Western civilization (and the Bible):

“the concrete ambivalence of the human condition is denied, [and] good and evil have a dual rather than a single source as in the complex unity of the primitive consciousness.”

The consequences of the Judeo-Christian belief system reach beyond a world of potentially “good” people:

“Actual behavior is never wholly good nor wholly evil: such pristine purity is never encountered. … the abstraction becomes a weapon against the person.”

We often use this abstraction against ourselves, even at times taking blame for “evil” done to us.

For Carl Jung, transcending the split and becoming an integrated person meant getting to know the shadow part of the self, and staying aware of both the good and the evil that resides in all of us. (Of note: He had experiences we would today describe as traumatic. He also seemed to have used infidelity to grapple with his internal splits.)

To reach integration, Jung believed we had to dissolve the distinction between good and evil, which is a conclusion he reached at the end of The Red Book:

“If the power of growth begins to cease, then the united falls into its opposites. We suspect and understand that growth needs both, and hence we keep good and evil close together. Because we know that too far into the good means the same as too far into the evil, we keep them both together.”

Interestingly, he then wrote:

“Thus I saw that the lover survives, and that he is the one who unwittingly grants hospitality to the Gods.”

Perhaps all “civilized” people are split. We habitually deny (and dissociate) aspects of ourselves to feel good about who we are, if not loveable. In the West, we fail to foster rituals, myths, and collective experiences that support transforming (and accepting) hidden aspects of self. And for too many, the path to integration has become an increasingly broken mental health system and medications that suppress “symptoms” rather than create opportunities for meaningful change and transformation. Consequently, conditions are ripe for acting from our shadow selves in ways we later regret, even if our actions start out as the simple wish for unconditional love.


Cirlot, J. E. 1971/2002. A dictionary of symbols. Translated by Jack Sage. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

Diamond, Stanley. 1972. “Introductory essay: Job and the trickster.” In The trickster: A study in American Indian mythology, edited by Paul Radin, xi-xxii. New York: Schocken Books.

Hart, Onno van der, Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele. 2006. The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: WW Norton & Company.

Jung, Carl G. 2009. The red book: Liber novus. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Kalsched, Donald. 1996. The inner world of trauma: Archetypal defenses of the personal spirit. New York: Routledge.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).