What Is Yours Is Not Mine: Psychological Separation

psychological separation Dec 17, 2023

Psychological Separation allows us to differentiate between flaws and errors that can be tolerated or overlooked and when those flaws or errors require us to create boundaries or even end relationships that are not serving us well.

If expectations are the greatest hazard in navigating our relationships, then a biproduct is taking ownership of behaviors and emotions that don’t belong to us. This emotional narcissism is an offense to which none of us, unfortunately, can claim complete innocence.

Thankfully, there is a way to manage our shared dysfunction.

Psychological Separation is foundational to participating in balanced relationships but also serves to maintain our sense of self whether or not we are intimately involved with another. This principle can and should be applied to all human interactions.

For years I thought of this truth as emotional separation, but really it is a conscious understanding of the motivations that are behind all of our choices and how those motivations are uniquely innate. While our choices can be influenced by others and certainly can affect others, they belong only to us.


Whether or not we are consciously aware of the needs and expectations we have for others, we are sensitive and sometimes hypersensitive to the behaviors of those around us, and especially to those of our partner. We personalize the actions of others, creating narrative and meaning with ourselves in the starring role.

This dynamic is played out in a multitude of ways, some of which are quite benign and fail to have lasting impact. Other more significant encounters lead to an interference with our well-being as we change the perception of who we are based on faulty evidence drawn from external sources.

The more intense experience of this dynamic is illustrated well by the circumstance of infidelity. In these cases, the most damaging aftermath is often the ensuing narrative of the betrayed partner. If the hurt individual is not aligned with their Intrinsic Worth, the lack of faithfulness by their partner triggers feelings of their own inadequacy creating a cascade of negative, painful emotions.

On the surface, the significant other and their treacherous behavior is the target of the powerful feelings. Yet, when someone struggles to get past an affair, it is because they use their partner’s behavior to define themselves, a feeling that is painful, awful, and unforgivable. Instead, if the hurt person is able to create Psychological Separation, they would still be hurt. They would still feel pain and likely would still experience some serious anger. But ultimately, they would recognize that their partner’s behavior, while definitely impactful, had absolutely nothing to do with them. Coming to terms with this distinction doesn’t require them to do anything.

It doesn’t mean that they must continue the relationship; it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have strong boundaries should they choose to stay in the relationship. It just means that they are free to let the emotion flow through them and move on. It is not their journey.


Infidelity is a strong example, but the truth is we engage this process all of time. It is present whenever (no matter how large or small) another person fails to meet our expectations and we have an emotional reaction to that disappointment.

If we are frustrated by our partner’s chronic lateness, workaholism, thoughtless comments, lack of affection or intimacy or forgetting to stop at the store for milk, it all comes down to the same process. We can also find the dynamic in other types of interactions and even with people we don’t know.

Getting cut off in traffic or encountering a rude service associate can trigger the same type of internal narrative. Are we taking another person’s behavior and making it personal or do we understand that while we are allowed to have frustration or other negative emotion, the behavior of someone else fails to define us.

We are free.

So many couples have found themselves in a state of crisis because they have regularly used each other’s personality flaws, poor judgment, and imperfect life choices to create a perceived personal reality. It is important again to note that Psychological Separation does not change our responsibility to choose healthy, positive relationships.

For example, we can accept that a person’s hurtful behavior related to alcoholism is driven by dysfunctional internal causes, while also understanding that it is impossible to collaborate in a healthy relationship together.

Psychological Separation offers us clarity and helps us to differentiate flaws and errors that can be tolerated or overlooked and when those flaws or errors require us to create boundaries or even end relationships that are not serving us well.


The challenge with Psychological Separation is that it is more difficult to practice without an understanding of Intrinsic Worth. It is vital that we have an enduring sense of self that is not dependent on our actions.

This allows us to also let go of the actions of others. Without the understanding that we hold value independent of our worldly choices, we will continue to look for validation, a sense of “goodness” from other people. It is easy then to use all the evidence we can gather from the behaviors of others to support or reduce our personal value. 

Dependence on another for our worth is a slippery slope to nowhere good. No matter how well-meaning or authentically loving, other people will always, at some point, fail to validate us in the ways we so deeply desire.

Like any other worthwhile endeavor, the practice of Psychological Separation offers great benefits with consistency. And unfortunately, choosing to avoid the work results in emotional fragility. So, where do we begin to practice Psychological Separation if we find ourselves overwhelmed with the how?

If after being deeply hurt by a partner we struggle to understand by what means we might release our painful yet seemingly accurate narrative? Learning to observe is foundational. Rather than allowing feelings to perpetually consume us, at some point, it is necessary to find a place of neutral exploration and analysis.

When you notice strong, negative emotion or even everyday annoyance or frustration, begin to observe your narrative. Pay attention to the meaning you are assigning the external behavior. Consider the internal motivations of the other person. Allow for your emotions, but then work to analyze the situation as objectively as possible.    

Psychological Separation is a relationship tool that serves us well, but yet it is so much more.  While it helps us to avoid the emotional burden that many loving couples accumulate over time, perhaps more importantly it strengthens the relationship we have with ourselves.

It will support us in becoming more aware of the internal motivations behind our own decisions, actions and choices which is a powerful catalyst for growth, change, and healing. 

My loving suggestion is to notice the next time someone makes you mad. What exactly are you telling yourself about it? What motivations and feelings are you assigning to the other person? What emotion and fear does this trigger in yourself? Can you identify what part in the encounter is yours versus theirs? Imagine yourself “putting down” the part that belongs to them.

You are light. You are love.