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  • Writer's picturemelaniesouthan

Chapter 2

Chapter 2*.

Object Relations Theory - An Interpersonal Encounter.

* Preliminary draft. Not to be quoted without author's permission.


"It is impossible to gain any adequate conception of the nature of an individual organism if it is considered apart from its relationships to its natural ~ , objects; for it is only in its relationships to these objects that its true nature s displayed."(p. 139.1946).

What then are the natural objects of that organism we call human, which starts off as a helpless infant? What objects will it naturally seek, fear and strive to attain? How will it respond if it fails in these aims? It would not be an exaggeration to say that Fairbairn breaks with Freud by asking these questions and that his psychoanalytic theory is an attempt to answer them.

In this chapter I shall consider some of Fairbairn's basic premises about the nature of a human being that differ from those of Freud and some other object rela­tions theorists and on which much of his psychoanalytical theory is developed. Before doing so it will be useful to clarify the meaning of the term "object" in psychoanalytic discourse.

"Object" does not refer to an inanimate thing. When used to refer to an actual person it is not meant to treat them in a callous fashion. An object in psychoanalytic theory is that which an individual, or some aspect or part of an individual strives to attain or get attached to for the satisfaction of a need, a drive, or an instinct. The object might be an external real other. It may also be a representational, symbolic aspect of an other which has been created, not necessarily consciously with intent, by an individual or part of an individual for some purpose or other.

1 The need to relate.

The Fairbairnian infant needs to love and be loved initially by his mother. The infant is in a state of absolute unconditional dependance on the mother for the satis­faction of his physical and emotional needs. She constitutes not only his world but also his self, in as much as he is not as yet completely differentiated from her. More­over, and just as important she also constitutes the conditions of personal survival.

Human infants, however, differ from other animals. To survive it is not suffi­cient to be fed, kept warm and be protected from those that hunt them. The develop­ment and maintenance of a relationship with an object is part of the inherent need of human beings. Object love and object need does not develop from the accidental asso­ciation of the other with a good feed;

"The real libidinal aim is the establishment of satisfactory relationships with objects; and it is, accordingly, the object that constitutes the true libidinal goal."(p. 138.1946).

To avoid any possibility of confusion with other theories let me stress again that the

"object" here is an actual real other.

This basic need of the child for a satisfactory relationship with the object is cru­cial. It is a need to relate as a whole person to a whole person. The object is a person, therefore an "other". For Fairbairn, there is a primary embodied self trying to relate as a whole to another embodied whole person. In the case of the infant, primarily the mother, or a surrogate mother; then secondarily the father. Fairbairn's infant is not a Robinson Crusoe. As we shall see becoming a Robinson Crusoe without Friday is something to be avoided.

It is intrinsic to humans that they form emotional bonds with others. The satis­faction of this need, or instinct, if one wishes, begins long before the development of language. After all a smile, a cry or a beam in the eye can be just as effective. The infant, the child and the later adult is an emotional being driven initially by the need to make a satisfactory relationship with others. The satisfaction of this primary need constitutes the condition of emotional survival.

As with all species the human infant is adapted to survival. But in the very early stages of development survival means adapting to the mother and getting her to adapt in the right way. The actual responsiveness of the mother is of crucial importance. To survive the infant must develop an ability to register responses and a repertoire to cope with disappointing or frustrating responses. The infant is a sentient being from the start assimilating and registering his or her perceptions of the outside world, in particular that aspect of the outside world on which its survival depends. There is an embryonic awareness of reality and a developing capacity for recognition. The infant is reality oriented from the start and therefore reality constrained from the start. It is reactive and proactive ab initio. In this respect Fairbairn's position is therefore akin to that of Winnicott who claims that a person's story and the potential hazards for a per­son begin before birth.

"The point of view that I am putting forward here is that at full term, there is already a human being in the womb, one that is capable of having experiences and of accumulating body memories and even of organising defensive measures to deal with traumata (such as the interruption of con­tinuity of being by reaction to the impingements from the environment in so far as it fails to adapt).(p. 143.)

For Fairbairn this was an hypothesis on which he based his theory. Empirical research over the past decade or so has confirmed that experience of external reality can have an effect even in utero, an effect that later shapes responsiveness in a positive or negative fashion. (Stern.)

The Fairbairnian infant develops a repertoire to cope with reality when it is too harsh. If that mighty tool, the scream is not responded to, too often, he or she can experience primitive agony that can lead to futility. But the infant is not only reactive, he or she is proactive. He or she can alter the subjective construction of his world to construct alternatives that disguise the predicament of an environment that is too har­shly rejective.

Fairbairn's theory represents a fundamental shift from a psychology that empha­sises the gratification of sexual or aggressive impulses to one that stresses the need for relationship. The self develops and is structured in the context of the relationship with the parents and the everwidening circle of others, if the child is still amenable to

influence, and is affected by the actual vicissitudes of these relationships. Because the human infant is inherently

orientated to outer reality from the start.

"Impulse tension in the ego must be regarded as inherently orientated towards objects in outer reality, and thus determined by the reality princi­ple from the first".(p.168.1951).

Fairbairn's psychoanalytic theory explores and analyses the vicissitudes of attachment and the often unconscious strategies adopted to cope with the traumas resulting from an environment not sufficiently attuned to the child's emerging needs for a tolerable attachment. It is then that the child begins to retreat from a relationship with whole persons, and possibly more destructively he can also retreat from the pos­sibility of a holistic relationship with himself. But the need for a whole relationship of the self with the other persists, it is summarised in

"the protesting cry of a patient-N You're always talking about my wanting this or that desire satisfied; but what I really want is a father.'"(p.137.1946). '

It is a view of a child who not only wants a father but who needs a loved and accept­ing father to say "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased". There is a relational need for the father, and prior to that the mother.

As we shall see Fairbairn's psychoanalytic theory, like all psychoanalytic theories deals with internal structures, psychic constructs, and psychic struggles. Where he differs from the Freudian tradition, and from some other object relations theorists is in his views that the subjective constructs the individual creates is a proactive response to an inappropriately reactive environment. They are created and shaped to deal with intolerable experience.

The reality principle which in the Freudian framework appears much later becomes primary in Fairbairn's framework. The child is adapted and adapting to reality from the start though that reality sense is initially immature, due to lack of experience, but "under conditions favourable to adaptation it matures as experience

expands"( ). The child's tendency to be more emotional and impulsive and thus more prone to "tension relieving sidetracks" in the face of frustration, implies that he is none the less actuated by awareness of reality.

2 The rejection of the Freudian structure.

Fairbairn's two interrelated moves of placing the reality principle at the earliest stage of development, and postulating the need for a relationship with another as a primary need leads him inexorably to reject some of the basic Freudian structures.

Freud developed a tri-partite model of the self based on psychic conflict; inaugurated by the structural theory. The German terms were the “es', the “ich” and the “uber-ich”

1) The repressed, the “id' or the “it', is known by its drive derivatives. It is an instinctual cauldron of unstructured energy, characterised by primary processes, timelessness and the absence of negation. The wishes which the acceptable self could not afford to own were manifestations of the drives. The assumed nature of the drives or instincts varied; from object libido to ego libido, and later to eros and thanatos. However, the repressed is assumed to be an unvarying anti-social cauldron of sexu­ality and rage. Much that is contained in the 'id' is hereditary, instinctual and innate. Reality may intrude but does not have a generic role.

2) The repressive agency, the “uber-ich, or "over I", translated as the super-ego, is at war with the drives. This is an internalised dynamic structure, set above the ego. This structure requires compliance, either as an acceptable, benign object in the form of the ego-ideal or as submission in its role as a malign, punitive, persecutor, a "bad" object. The super-ego therefore has a duality of aspects, benign in the form of the ego-ideal, persecutory as the malign implacably rejective super-ego.

3) The ego, or the "I" has to preserve the functional adaptation of the self. It has a managerial role as the beleaugered mediator between these warring forces of the id and super-ego and the demands of the external world. The "I" has to be aware of danger both internal or external. The "I" has both to register and to take defensive action to avoid danger. To manage its delicate task, it has to see but at the same time distort the process of conscious registration. The "I" may only see through a glass darkly. It is cognitively impaired in the defensive process of functional survival. The T is also emotionally impaired by its repudiation and distortion of the instinctual drives due to the vicissitudes of repression undertaken at the behest of the super-ego.

For the Freudian, defences are devices or sets of mechanisms utilised by the ego to regulate tension arising from internal conflict. Ideas are split from their con­comitant affects. The repressed ideas and their affects are made manifest in some form of derivative, compromise formation in neurotic symptoms, dreams, and parapraxes.

"Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. "(1926) ushered in a third phase of Freudian theory. Inhibitions are undertaken by the ego to avoid conflict with the id or the superego. The ego is the seat of anxiety. It has the task of warding off internal and external dangers. It wards off instinctual process and its concomitant psychical representatives.

But if the ego succeeds in protecting itself from the dangerous erotic or aggres­sive instinctual impulses, by the process of repression, it inhibits and damages part of the id and gives it some degree of independance. The id becomes increasingly a sepa­rate dynamic entity or force. The ego by renouncing sovereignty is depleted. To avoid trauma, the ego surrenders its integrative capacities. The ego and the id become increasingly differentiated with the id subject to repression.

Fairbairn argues that the concept of dynamic structure is incompatible with this Freudian conception of

"a) the id as a reservoir of instinctive impulses, and b) the ego as a struc­ture which develops on the surface of the id for the regulation of id-impulses in relation to outer reality; for the principle of dynamic structure can only be maintained if the ego is regarded as an original structure which is itself the source of impulse tension."(p. )

Regarding the ego, the home of the reality principle as part of the original structure

and as a source of impulse tension brings reality into the picture from the beginning.

A window to the outside world is opened from the start through which either warmth

or a chill can enter. What does enter determines whether and what type of tensions

will occur, and what psychic antibodies are created and repressed.

Fairbairn's stress on the fundamental need for relationships also lead him to reject the Freudian theory of libidinal development via the erotogenic zones, oral, anal, phallic and genital as well as the theory of polymorphous infantile perversity. Instead he develops a theory of the vicissitudes of dependence. Development is not characterised by the maturation of psychosexual zones but rather by the maturation of different ways of relating to others. Erotogenic zones are not the primary determinant and sources of libidinal aims but rather they constitute a route or channel to the other. There is an assumption of a natural biological progression from the mouth to the genitals as part of our evolutionary, unfolding biological endowment, but the channel may not be psychologically available due to various experiential factors.

Thus, for example, in the oral stage the mouth is emphasised as one of the pri­mary modes of relating to the other in early infancy. It is the organ of breast seeking that is part of our instinctual endowment.

"The mouth is the chief organ of desire, the chief instrument of activity, the chief medium of satisfaction and frustration, the chief channel of love and hate, and most important of all, the first means of social con­tact", (p. 10, my emphasis).

He rejects the anal and phallic stages, while his concept of mature dependence is only

akin to that of Freud in that he emphasises a capacity to establish differentiated

relationships with differentiated others, one of which should be genital.

Fairbairn too posits a developmental continuum of infantile to mature depend­ance. But this developmental continuum is structured and affected by outer reality from the beginning. A distinction is made between the natural object appropriate to a phase of development and the incorporated object that is substituted for it in psychopathological cases.

This theory has affinity with the work of Balint who argues that

"If it (the child) gets something, it becomes as it were moulded, by the gratifications received — anal-sadistic, phallic and finally genital object relations have not a biological but a cultural basis ".(Balint, 1936 p. 80.)

3 The pleasure principle.

Consistent with and arising from his general structure Fairbairn also rejects, or rather has a different interpretation of the pleasure principle so fundamental in Freudian theory. For Freud pleasure seeking, the striving for a release of the tensions arising from internal psychic apparatus connected with sexuality in its broadest sense, is an instinctual goal.

For Fairbairn the ultimate goal of the instinctual drives or impulses is not dis­charge, or the reduction of bodily tension experienced as pleasure. The disposal of impulses is essentially a problem of object relationships, which cannot be considered apart from ego-structures, since it is only ego-structures that can seek relationships with objects. Libido, for Fairbairn, is inherently object-seeking rather than pleasure seeking. But libido is not some hypothetical construct providing a pseudo-reified explanation of the motivation inferred to determine human behaviour.

"it is the individual in his libidinal capacity (and not libido) that is object-seeking." (in Guntrip.1961p.305. Personality Structure and Human Inter­action; the Developing Synthesis of Psychodynamic Theory. New York: Basic Books.)

He, therefore, discards Freud's hedonistic account of human behaviour with the stress on the primacy of the pleasure principle.

The reality principle, object-seeking and the aim of object relationships have primacy. But the achievement of these aims can be frustrated by environmental haz- ards. He obviously backs the old adage that we can only cope with as much reality as we can bear. It is only when we become confronted by that which we can bear no longer that the pleasure principle is invoked ^ _

"Explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour. I speak here of a deterioration', rather than of a regression', of behaviour "

because if object-seeking is primary, pleasure seeking can hardly be described as regressive', but is more appropriately described as partaking

of the nature of deterioration." (p. 140.1946).

He does not deny that straight pleasure seeking can provide relief from libidinal tension but this tension arises from failure and frustration in object-relationships.

"Simple tension- relieving is really a safety-valve process. It is thus, not a


means of achieving libidinal aims, but a means of mitigating the failure of these aims

and therefore

"the pleasure principle [is] a secondary and deteriorative (not regressive) principle of behaviour calculated to relieve tension and provide com­pensatory satisfactions, "(p. 157.1949).

. Given, Fairbairn's view of development, the theory of infantile sexuality and

polymorphous perversity is compensatory to relational failure. Premature eroticisation

is a pathological, deteriorative development arising from the blocking of the normal

channels in establishing satisfactory contact with the other.

Phenomena, viewed as evidence of polymorphous perversity, such as exhib­itionism, sadism and masochism are understood as compensatory attempts to salvage natural emotional relationships which have broken down and "The strength of these needs varies in inverse proportion to the satisfaction of his emotional needs".(p. 175.1951).

This contrasts sharply with Freud's view that "a disposition to perversion is an original and universal disposition of the human sexual instinct" (S.E., 7, p231). In as

much as there is failure in the empathic responsiveness of the mother to her child, the


child turns to other forms of substitutive satisfactions. Pleasure seeking, such as com­pulsive masturbation, has a compensatory function. It reduces the tensions accentuated and associated with relational failure.


In this area Fairbairn's theory, therefore, has similarities with those of Kohut and Stoller who regard sexually perverse behaviour as being consequent to failure in relationships and as being compensatory fragmentation products to regulate self-esteem.

📷As we shall see in more detail later Fairbairn's approach leads him to a different view of repression, perhaps the core concept of the psychoanalytic enterprise. For him repression represents a defensive reaction on the part of the ego, not primarily against intolerably unpleasant memories (as in Freud's earlier view), or against intolerably guilty impulses (as in Freud's later view), but against internalised objects which appear intolerably bad to the ego.

(Medusa mother and black hole)

For Fairbairn, the victim of incest resists the revival of the traumatic memory because it represents the record of a relationship with a bad object, with whom he is identified. He resists the memory not because he is guilty but because it is simply bad.


"It is intolerable in the main, not because it gratifies repressed impulses, but for the same reason that a child often flies from a stranger who enters the house. It is intolerable because a bad object is always intolerable, and a relationship with a bad object can never be contemplated with equanimity". (p. 63.1941). (terror)

For Fairbairn, the content of the repressed and the strength of the need to maintain

repression will vary in inverse proportion to the frustrations experienced in real relationships. The difference between this view and Freud's statement that children "are compelled to recapitulate from the history of mankind the repression of an incestuous object-choice" (S.E., 17, p. 188) is apparent.

For Freud, incestuous feelings are part of our genetic inheritance and must be negotiated by every child. But for Fairbairn incestuous feelings for the mother or perhaps the father arises from the frustrated need for contact which at first is the sensuous need for the body of the other.

4 Summary.

Let me now briefly summarise the main elements of the Fairbairnian frame­work. In a human the need for relationships with others is primary. It is not derived from an association with the process of satisfying other needs, bodily or sexual, or other impulses. This need for relationships is there from the beginning of one's exist­ence and the process of attempting to satisfy it starts from the beginning. But it takes two to make a relationship whether among adults or between the infant and his pri­mary caretaker. The process is hazardous. It can fail. But that does not eliminate the need. For Fairbairn therefore the aetiology of psychological problems, whether it is neurosis, or perversions; the Oedipus complex or arrested sexual development, is to be found in some failure in the attempt at satisfying the primary need for relationships and the defensive techniques utilised by the individual to compensate for the failure.

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