Q: "Splitting" & Bipolar Disorder
During a therapy session with a family member who is bi-polar with manic
episodes, the therapist mentioned a bi-polar term called "splitting" in response
to her behavior in telling one person one thing and another person something
different regarding the same subject. (Like thanking person #1 for all of their
help, then complaining to person #2 that she is so hurt and angry because person
#1 is doing nothing to help.) Is that what splitting is? And why do people
with bi-polar disorder do it? Thank you for anything you can tell
me...I've had a lot of trouble finding out what this "splitting" is...and I just
want to understand better!
The term you are describing here, "Splitting", belongs
to a very large body of writing in reference to a different condition, very
unfortunately called "borderline personality disorder" (unfortunate, because it
reflects a remarkable arrogance on the part of psychiatry, labeling people
thus). The term is not really a part of the literature on bipolar disorder
However, there is a striking overlap between these two conditions, as described
in an essay about bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder on my
website. Nevertheless, the idea of "splitting", really belongs to the literature
The example of the splitting that you have provided here is an appropriate one.
In general, the idea is that the "patient" this play is a tendency to create a
divide between people who would otherwise be united in their wish to help. One
often hears the term "manipulation" as part of this story; i.e., the patient is
thought to manipulate situations to his or her advantage through indirect means,
often behaviors that force caregivers to respond. The classic example here is
suicidal or self harm actions which are then rather openly disclosed.
However, one of the world's most foremost authorities on "borderline personality
disorder", Dr. Marsha Linehan, has taken very strong issue with both of these
terms (splitting and manipulation). In her model of explaining borderline
personality disorder, both of these behaviors are described as the result of the
behavior of the caregivers, more than the patient. The idea is that because more
effective means of communication have not worked, the patient resorts to more
indirect means, such as suicidal actions to communicate distress, which are then
reinforced by caregivers and even institutions (emergency rooms and psychiatric
In my view, Dr. Linehan's explanations have great value. Therefore, I would
suggest extreme caution in accepting this concept of "splitting" as something
that you're a family member is doing. In general, another important way of
looking at this would be to consider the possibility that these "splitting"
behaviors reflect something going on in the family system, not just in that
Bravo to you for "just wanting to understand better". That is very likely to be
the best approach. Good luck with that.
Published May, 2007