Relational Projection and Taking Things Personally

Moxie posted Sunday about a guy whose girlfriend got a second tattoo.

“She has never expressed any kind of interest in getting another tattoo…[snip]…Yesterday, her friend got a tattoo. She told me she thought it was a bad idea. That the friend had only put 3 months into thinking about it, and that she didn’t think it was enough time to put into a permanent decision like that.

Then last night she gets drunk with her two best friends (one of them being the one who got the tattoo). The best friend convinces the other two friends to both get an impulsive tattoo. Before it happened, she texted me “I’m getting a tattoo.” I wrote back “Don’t do that, you’re drunk.” She never responded. Now she has a tattoo of a bird on the back of her neck.

I’m really upset about it. I’m upset that she wouldn’t even discuss it with me before doing it. Especially when she knows how much I hate them. I’m upset that I have to look at this tattoo for the unforeseeable future.

I understand that it’s her body, and she can do what she wants with it. But I feel like if she truly cared about me, then that would have factored in for her; and she would have at least discussed the issue with me before going through with it.”

I’m really not a tattoo fan myself. However I’ve found that lots of women around my age and demographic cohort have them, most of them along the lines of hip, butt, ankle or foot. They seem to view it as some small but unsubtle way to be “unique,” to give the bad-girl finger to the staid middle-upper class upbringing that they otherwise embrace wholeheartedly.

Another group has the class of tattoo referred to as the “tramp stamp.” Just speculating here but I think they see it as one they can wear conspicuously at the beach or club, but hide with clothes when at work or with family. They tend to correspond to the promiscuous and attention-seeking stereotype.

My informal survey suggests that a significant portion of these two groups got their tattoos under the influence of girls-night/beach-trip peer pressure and copious consumption of alcohol.

Another small group of women are true body art enthusiasts with highly visible sleeves or neck tats, and almost without exception work in coffee shops, indie shops and likewise non-white-collar professions.

Anyway, onto the case at hand.


The first thing that came to mind is that the guy should de-personalize this situation. He’s very focused on personal hurt, and the idea that she either positively disregarded his concerns or never listened to them in the first place. I surmise that this is a way to validate his emotional response, to frame his feelings as the outcome of a transgression on her part and an outcome she should have considered.

There’s a certain style of projection that can take place in the context of a relationship: “you KNOW I don’t like that and you did it anyway so you MUST have done it to piss me off!” a way of assigning blame for your emotions to somebody else. A variant is, “if you’d stopped to consider MY feelings, you would have known I wouldn’t like it and you wouldn’t have done it.” which is a long-winded version of “if you loved me you wouldn’t do X/Y/Z.”

Both men and women can do this (I personally have noticed a lot more of it from women). It’s a way of keeping yourself relevant – if you assume relational aggression, that means you are front and center in their mind even if only as the target of their sociopathic schemes, as opposed to them simply not considering you at all. (This was summarized to me by a young woman who said “I don’t know how we girls work, I guess even negative attention fits the bill as attention.”)

I’m reminded of a scene in the second season of Grey’s Anatomy, when Derek Shepherd and his estranged wife Addison were fighting over the evident dissolution of their marriage following her affair with his best friend, his budding relationship with his resident Meredith Grey and a failed attempt for the couple to reconcile (this example is almost too complicated of a setup to make its point).

Derek plaintively asks “what do you want?” and Addison shouts back “I WANT YOU TO GIVE A DAMN!”

Now there are cases (plenty) where one partner IS actively trying to hurt the other. But here’s the deal – people do stuff all the time without considering the consequences, for themselves, let alone for other people. Very few people live such examined lives that every decision is rationally crosschecked.


The “revealed personality” is the next thing I thought of. Those automatic choices people make reveal their preferences, their instinctual yearnings, and their character.

What is revealed by her behavior is that she is impulsive, prone to peer pressure and the influence of alcohol, and doesn’t stop to think about consequences when someone close to her tells her she isn’t in a position to make good decisions.

In light of this, I think it’s best for the guy’s psyche and sound decision-making to frame this incident as “she is the type of person who would make life-changing decisions under impulse without consulting the person who is supposed to be her monogamous partner, with whom she’s ostensibly building a life for the future.”

By contrast, it’s ineffective and obfuscatory to view this activity as a case of relational aggression, of intentionally or neglectfully hurting him – he’s not going to make a good decision about the relationship if he’s thinking that way because he’s already set himself up as a victim.

And it’s a far less personal judgment on her – instead of accusing her of not loving him enough, he simply examines her as she is and whether he wants to be in a relationship with that kind of person. It’s actually rather empowering, instead of being a victim he makes an assertive decision based on observed data.

A corollary of this is to consider that maybe she’s not as serious about the relationship as he expects. Which brings us to…


Early in dating/a relationship, there’s the paradox that you are on your best behavior but at the same time operating from the assumption that you don’t have to be accountable to the other person – there’s not enough investment or commitment for that, and in fact many people get creeped out if their new partner starts making coordinated plans too far in advance.

Now personally, anywhere from 6-9 months is a psychological “line of demarcation” in my mind when it comes to relationships. Around that time, a monogamous setup becomes “monogamous and committed,” where there is an unspoken expectation that the couple’s planning timeline is going to get longer than “a week or two from now,” you’re expected to plan for family holidays, and the relationship annuity starts bearing longer-term fruit. One example of this is consulting your partner on big life decisions.

Thing is, if you view behavior like getting an impromptu tattoo as somebody’s natural predilection rather than something that she did without your approval, then you don’t need any of this “how committed are we” consideration, because you’re not framing it as “something they shouldn’t do because I don’t like it.”

Which brings me to the action plan.


If you have serious behavioral dealbreakers like bodily mutilation, drug use or dangerous hobbies, it’s not a very good strategy to hope that you can make your partner love you enough to dissuade them from partaking in those behaviors.

It’s a much better strategy to find somebody who is not inclined to those dealbreakers in the first place, and then the bonds of the relationship serve as the final guardrail, a rational check on their instinctive behaviors.

Now to be sure, you can’t get everything you want in a partner, and hassling out likes and dislikes and boundaries is part of the “relationship negotiation” that should be an unglamorous but non-acrimonious part of any couplehood.

I would advise him to focus more on the actions themselves than whether she checked with him or not, acts of impulsive attention-seeking that are major red flags rather than her being insufficiently loving of and committed to him.


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24 responses to “Relational Projection and Taking Things Personally

  1. Excellent analysis. Logic almost always makes a better starting point than emotions when facing a potentially life-altering decision. As an aside, a guy who would frame the situation in such emotional language in the first place suggests insecurity and heavily beta thinking. This time the tattoo had little to do with him but if he doesn’t embrace his inner masculinity the next one actually might be done as a sign of her disdain for his lack of a backbone.

  2. Good stuff. The logic should be:

    She criticizes friend for doing X, then she does X herself = she gets dumped.

  3. criolle johnny

    “It’s actually rather empowering … ”
    This was a shit test.
    He failed.

  4. Dirt Man

    Well said man, I especially think its good advice to look for someone who is more in line with your expectations, e. g. not into body milutilation etc. also a good idea to be more self aware of one’s own projections and what not.

    All the same, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if a woman asks your permission before getting a tattoo, cutting her hair, etc., but then I’m old fashioned.

  5. Candide

    The real issue / lolz here is that our host watches Grey’s Anatomy.

    It wasn’t about him, she didn’t do it to hurt his feelings, because she never thought that he (or men) has any feeling at all in the first place.

    I’m indifferent to tattoos. Don’t have any myself. I do enjoy some good ones (have a few friends in various performing arts who have beautiful tattoos) and I cringe at some poor ones, but overall just having tattoos is neither a deal breaker nor a turn-on. However, it’s a red flag of the most serious order for me when a chick gets shit-faced and does stuff under peer pressure from her lame friends. You’re guaranteed to get cheated on if you make her your girl.

  6. WillieMaize24

    ,” it’s a red flag of the most serious order for me when a chick gets shit-faced and does stuff under peer pressure from her lame friends.”

    Damn straight. And also what kind of a girl has friends who tell her to get a tattoo? The guy needs to dump the girl asap and no contact afterwards,

  7. Jack Amok

    Badger, you were a little long winded there. And the Grey’s Anatomy admission is… interesting.

    Short answer. He told her not to do something, she did it anyway. He dumps her. End of story.

    Because if he doesn’t dump her, she will eventually dump him.

    If I say no, she can argue with me about it, and maybe even get me to change my mind, but she damn well better not just ignore me. That she ignored him does indeed indicate she doesn’t love him enough, because it indicates she doesn’t respect him, and that’s almost always a deal-breaker with a woman. If she doesn’t respect him, she’s not going to love him.

    Like Johnny said above, he failed a shit test.

    It does seem like the guy is seriously confused himself though. You’re right that he’s processing it the wrong way – “If she really cared about me she would have considered my feelings…” Blech. No dude, if she really respected you she would have listened to you.

  8. @Dirth Man,

    The fact that she didn’t ask permission to get a tattoo and did so under the influence of alcohol and peer pressure means that the guy has got more problems than the tattoo, I think.

  9. I’m actually with the guy on this one. Say I was running for office and had a guy to handle the media for me, and he got a visible tattoo. It really does not matter if he did not do it as a screw you to me. It’d still piss me off, and due to him not having his shit together, I’d fire him. The “If she really cared about me” type language is not great, but the fact of the matter is if she had thought about the guy first, that would show greater care on her part where as not thinking about it shows less care. That said the the jump to it meaning she does not care at all is a bit womanish.

  10. Brian

    “But I feel like if she truly cared about me, then that would have factored in for her; and she would have at least discussed the issue with me before going through with it.””

    For starters, that right there is some whiny, bitchy shit right there. Any guy that would type out something like that needs to learn to grow a pair.

    The situation seems pretty straight forward to me, and similar to Jack Amok’s comment. If she’s good in bed, keep her around but start working on spinning plates. If she’s in that “not bad, but not great anymore” range, move on. If she’s not that great in bed period (likely with a guy that would whine like that), you need to ask yourself why you are even with her.

  11. ASF

    Weak shit from the guy. She has no respect for him. Like many guys, he’s got a girlfriend and is now hanging on for grim death to her.

  12. Bert

    If he takes this he’ll eat only shit for the rest of his life.

  13. If she is getting a tattoo (permanent) without much thought what other things is she “not listening” to her boyfriend about? I’m thinking he has a bad case of oneitis and needs to let this girl ride the pine. If he thinks this will be getting any better he’s wrong.

  14. Two problems with it – One the lack of respect for either herself or the guy. If she had more respect for herself she wouldn’t have given in to the peer pressure after saying she ‘hates tattoos’ when drunk with stupid friends. Especially a bird on the back of her neck. Seriously. Then not respecting what the guy’s wishes are. Badger’s right in that she didn’t do it to hurt him, she just didn’t respect him so it didn’t fit into her thought process other than to tell him via text that it was going to happen.

    The second is just dating someone that’s incredibly hypocritical on decisions you have to live with the rest of your life. Why date someone like that? “I hate people who get frivolous divorces” = Divorce two years later.

    Screw that. Don’t bother with her, don’t make a huge deal, demonstrate your value just by walking out on the relationship or, as someone else said, start spinning plates and looking for someone who’s not such a case.

  15. P Ray

    If she doesn’t think the guy is worth listening to,
    he’s with the wrong girl.
    If she got infected by those needles, he gets to carry the can for life if they get married, or be branded “spineless” if he chooses to leave her when that happens.
    People who don’t care what long-term irreversible effects their actions have on others (even if it is a choice they make for themselves),
    are showing that only their own choices matter at all.
    Dump is my final answer.

  16. Zesty

    I think you nailed it here. The tattoo itself isn’t the issue. It’s her impulsive behaviour and demonstrated lack of communication/compromise between them both. This is no different than going ahead and painting a room a colour you know your partner hates or inviting people over without checking in with them first. It sounds like they have bigger relational fish to fry than a tattoo.

  17. CL

    Excellent analysis. The money quote:

    What is revealed by her behavior is that she is impulsive, prone to peer pressure and the influence of alcohol, and doesn’t stop to think about consequences when someone close to her tells her she isn’t in a position to make good decisions.

  18. Matt

    Agreed that the problem here is impulsivity. But not only that: there’s also the fact that she LIED to him outright about her impulsivity when she said, e.g., that she’d never get another tattoo.

    So I agree: Ditch her. You don’t know her like you think you do.

    Also, y’all are too harsh on him about the “consider my feelings” bit. He justifiably feels threatened by the fact that when she’s around him, she acts like she can control herself, but when she’s not around him, she can’t. Yes, it’s betamized language and it misses the mark of what’s really going on. There’s no need to pillory the poor bastard for it, especially when he knows enough to ask for help.

  19. anonymous x

    As far as I’m concerned, tramp stamps = goodbye. Yes they are that unacceptable to me and I would make that clear and up front at the beginning of the relationship. If it had been me in the OP’s position, I would have texted back “don’t bother coming here” and put all her crap in boxes to be set outside the front door. I wouldn’t be emotional about it. Just a cool calm set with the context that a woman who disrespects me that much doesn’t deserve me. At all.

  20. Charm

    From my experiences with getting tattooed, most reputable places wont tattoo you if you are obviously under the influence of a substance. Its technically against the law. Though it could be different depending on the state. Also, I live in a pretty big city and most of them close fairly early every night so I could only imagine what type of tattoo parlor was open past 1am and giving tattoos to a group of drunk women. She should probably get tested because Im sure in their drunken “You go grrrrrrrlllll” they didn’t make sure the needle was opened in front of them. Stupid girl.

  21. sharp

    Judging by the way he talks, I wouldn’t be surprised if his strategy to deal with the tattoo event is to sit down with her and discuss his feeeeelings with openness and honesty, because he learned from our culture it’s the best way to heal relationship wounds, meanwhile her respect for him will continue to plummet for believing such nonsense.

    “I understand that it’s your body, and you can do what you want with it. But I feel like if you truly cared about me, then you would have factored in that I don’t care about tattoos, and you would have at least discussed the issue with me before going through with it.”

    You can almost picture her yawning. That relationship is doomed either way.

  22. Theophilus

    Like many commenters have said, it was a shit test. Dude has completely lost control of his relationship and has to start some serious plate-spinning right away.
    The only correct reaction to her text is radio silence. She clearly knew exactly how he would feel about the tattoo. Everything that happened after is her escalating her shit test. If she respected him and knew that he could/would go straight to some other chick, even serious drunkenness/peer pressure would not get her to do something she knew he didn’t want. As Heartiste says, she should feel the fear.
    And his whining about “if she really cared about me” is straight from the advice column of a women’s magazine. But he may not be a lost cause – at least he knew where to ask.

  23. Heartless

    I used to be very similar, very beta, before the red pill. I lost many relationships for talking shit like “if you cared about me…” and trying to talk and reason issues with women. Thank God I found the cure. Luckily he has found the right place too, now he just needs to swallow the pill here.

  24. To second Charm: the guy might want to think about getting tested. From the (albeit limited) experiences I have with body modification, I know that any reputable parlor will kick you straight out if you seem messed up in any way. If they won’t do at least that much, then . . .

    Coming from another perspective, I also find women like her very frustrating. Unless she’s incredibly lucky, she’s going to regret the fact the she got it within a few years, which builds this misconception in people’s heads that unless you’re an enthusiast and completely tatted up, you must have been young, dumb, or drunk when you got yours.

    I get frustrated when flaky chicks like her ask me, “Do you still like your tattoo?”

    Of course I still like it: I spent a year drawing, consulting, and doing research before I got it just right. I didn’t get nagged into getting it in a night of omggirlpower drunken stupor.

    Having one was my prerogative, as I was not sharing my life with anyone at the time. That said, if I had been with someone who disapproved, I certainly wouldn’t have gone out and gotten it done behind his back — even as strongly as I felt (and feel) about my tat. Further proof that she is not a keeper.

    Just be happy it wasn’t a tramp stamp.
    (In my circle of friends, we also call those POTs, or Pull Out Targets. You’re welcome for that one.)

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