Deepak Chopra famously said: “When you blame and criticize others, you are avoiding some truth about yourself.” The tendency to focus on the flaws of others in order to deny scary or painful dimensions of the self comes up often in therapy. Sigmund Freud described this process as projective identification. Projective identification — often called a projection– is commonly understood as the process of hyper-focusing on a particular flaw in another so that this same flaw can be avoided in one’s self. However, a deeper, more complicated definition of projective identification sometimes arises in couples therapy, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnificent novel, Tenter is the Night, illuminates this extraordinary, lesser known human dynamic.
A projective identification, in its truest, most psychologically sophisticated sense, is an unconscious contract between two people through which they agree that a particular trait or grouping of traits will be transferred from one person to another. With such an agreement, one person therefore internalizes the pathology of another, and agrees to hold it for them to relieve their pain and emotional burden. For example, when an alcoholic whose primary conflict is marital intimacy enters treatment, their spouse might begin taking pills to ensure that some form of mind-altering substance remains between them, as a buffer to their marital intimacy. I have also noticed this phenomenon among military spouses who experience post-traumatic stress in the place of their husbands who serve. The couple might unconsciously agree that the soldier cannot afford the tremendous anxiety, so the wife takes it on.
Tender is the Night tells the colorful tale of the exceedingly glamorous couple Nicole and Dick Diver, whom the reader first encounters through the naive and adoring eyes of Rosemary Hoyt, a young American starlet on the brink of fame. Rosemary is vacationing with her mother in the late 1920s on the French Riviera when she discovers the Divers on the beach. Their collective aura is captivating and seductive, as she finds herself drawn to them both. It turns out that the couple has a secret: Dick was once a promising young psychiatrist and Nicole was his wealthy, institutionalized patient. Dr. Diver fell for the young heiress while treating her, and has found himself in a dual role — part psychiatrist, part husband.
Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night after he spent time at a psychiatric institution where his wife Zelda was a patient diagnosed with schizophrenia. As Fitzgerald writes of Dr. Diver’s work with young Nicole, Fitzgerald seems to driven to work through his own experience:
Dick tried to rest – the struggle would come presently at home and he might have to sit a long time, restating the universe for her. A “schizophrene” is well named as a split personality – Nicole was alternatively a person to whom nothing need be explained and one to whom nothing could be explained. It was necessary to treat he with active and affirmative insistence, keeping he road to reality always open, making the road to escape harder going. But the brilliance, the versatility of madness is akin to the resourcefulness of water seeping through, over and around a dike. It requires the united front of many people to work against it.
Ultimately, Nicole is cured and Dick – whose career is in shambles and whose alcohol use is extreme – descends into a state of madness. Though they do not discuss nor seem consciously aware of the acute transaction, Nicole essentially hands her illness over to her doctor/ husband, who internalizes the illness in this final act of his treatment before they part ways:
Nicole relaxed and felt new and happy; her thoughts were clear as good bells – she had a sense of being cured and in a new way. Her ego began blooming like a great rich rose as she scrambled back along the labyrinths in which she had wandered for years. She hated the beach, resented the places where she had played planet to Dick’s sun. “Why, I’m almost complete,” she thought, “I’m practically standing alone, without him. And like a happy child, wanting the completion as soon as possible, and knowing vaguely that Dick had planned for her to have it, she lay on her bed as soon as she got home and wrote Tommy Barban in Nice a short provocative letter.”
Tender is the Night is, of course, much more than a window thrown open to illuminate the psychological complexity of projective identification within marriage. Fitzgerald is among the most important American writers, and the trajectory of his own struggles, and his wife’s, make the book even more absorbing. The Divers and the Fitzgeralds share a magnetic aura, volatility, and additional parallel details including a wife’s shocking attempt to drive her husband off the road. Readers who are curious about how unconscious marital transactions unfold will be riveted by this remarkable novel.