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Chapter 3

Chapter 3. Stages of Development.

Not to be quoted without author's permission.

For Fairbairm, dependence on a relationship with others is part of our psycho-biological endowment, but there is a maturational continuum in the development of interpersonal rela­tionships, or object relations. This involves phase-appropriate concepts both in terms of the nature of the natural object and in the way we relate to these objects at each stage of develop­ment. In this chapter, I will concentrate on Fairbairn's account of human dependence.

Human dependence has three phases, which roughly overlap chronologically with some of Abrahams' maturational stages of classical object relations theory. The first stage is infantile dependence. This corresponds to Abraham's 'oral phases' of classical theory. This is divided into two phases, the first characterised by sucking, in the second biting emerges. The infant's repertoire is extended. The second stage is transitional. It is characterised by the increasing tendency to abandon the attitude of infantile dependence and an increasing tendency to adopt the attitude of mature dependence. This stage subsumes the anal phase and the early genital, so called phallic phase, of Abrahams. Finally there is mature or adult dependence which cor­responds to Abrahams 'genital phase' (p. 163.1951). During the process of healthy maturation "Infantile dependence upon the object gradually gives place to mature dependence upon the object".(p.34.1941).

1 Infantile dependence.

As Fairbairn roots the origins of psychopathology in early childhood it is essential to clarify his account of infantile dependance in some depth.

The outstanding feature of infantile dependance is its unconditional character. Because of the primary helplessness of the human infant he is dependant upon his object not only for the satisfaction of his physical needs but also his psychological ones. The infant has no choice. The mother or her substitute is the life-line. He can only accept or reject her; a choice which could present itself as a choice between life or death.

The imperative need for the body-breast-mother is natural for the infant. It is inappropriate at this point to talk of selfishness, ruthlessness or greed. Such descriptions impose concepts that may be applicable to later stages of development, onto a stage where they have no meaning. At this stage the need for the mother is simply a matter of survival.

The infant needs not only the breast of the mother but her actual physically embodied | responsive warmth. Sucking, though a significant channel, is not the only modality by which , ' [ the infant establishes a connection with her. Like Harlow's monkeys, the human infant seeks the comfort of the warm "terry towel" mother not the cold, metallic milk provider. The experience of nurturant warmth is more significant than the provision of basic nutrients. The emo­tional attitude of the mother as mediated by her physical care is of primary import. Its value is not derived from her association with the pleasure provided by gratification of hunger. The / mother is more than a metaphorical good breast. The sgood' breast is a reductive metaphor for the total nurturant loving response of the mother with breast as conveyed to the infant.

The child rearing practises of Truby King with their controlled feeding and handling schedules are anathema to the Fairbairnian infant. They are not attuned to the primary needs of the infant for responsive loving contact, food or comfort.

The characteristic feature of early infantile dependance is primary identification. This is , an assumed stage when the foetus and later neonate is as yet undifferentiated from the mother. Self and other experience are as yet inextricably intertwined. The boundaries between self and ' the world are not yet clarified.

"In so far as identification persists after birth, the individual's object constitutes not only his world, but also himself."(p.47.)

Primary identification thus represents the persistence into extra-uterine life of a relationship existing before birth. It is an attempt to conceptualise that stage where the human subject is as yet part of "an interpenetrating mix-up ".(Balint). Primary identification is therefore defined as the characteristic feature of early infantile or oral dependance. In this state there is not other, the only object is the "self" in, or as part of the other. This assumption may need reassessment in the the light of findings derived from the increasing body of research on neonates. (Stern). This reasearch seems to indicate that the self-other distinction occurs extremely early.

The Kohutian concept of a "self-object", delineating the functional role of the parent as separate but necessary for the formation and maintenance of personal embodied identity and the regulation of self-esteem might be more consistent with the empirical data. This would put more emphasis on the role of secondary identification as a crucial feature which perpetuates and blocks the transition to mature dependance. I shall return to this problem later.

From this initial undifferentiated state there is a process of a developing awareness of the other, the beginning of awareness of a boundary between a self, however yet immature and unformed and the out-there which initially is the mother. (own body and body of other separation)

Through the mother's attuned responsiveness and sensitive adaptation, the child grad­ually builds up an object representation that she is there and later in a more advanced stage that she is potentially there.

At this stage the Fairbairnian infant seeks unconditional loving acceptance. It must be unconditional because as yet the infant knows not how to satisfy any conditions, though as we shall see later the infant may too early and at a great cost learn the conditions of the contract.

Such sentiments are given metaphorical expression in the idealisation of the mutually adoring mother-child dyad of the Virgin with the infant Jesus. Joseph, a potential intruder to this dyadic bliss, is ideally either absent or given a minimal role. Another example of this idealisation of primary love or mutual adulation and oneness at an adult stage can be inferred fom Rodin's lyrical sculpture of two lovers. The man is supporting the woman in mid-air and gazing into her eyes. The title is "Je suis belle." Presumably the sculpture, characterises him­self and Camille Claudel. The termination of this love affair had tragic consequences for Camille, who ended her days as a paranoid derelict. She was not able to survive the abrupt termination and loss of this idyll as a separate other.

2 The transitional stage.

In the process of moving from primary identification to a relationship with a separate other the greatest need of a child is to obtain

"conclusive assurance (a) that he is genuinely loved as a person by his

parents, and (b) that his parents genuinely accept his love." (p.39, 1941)

Fairbairn always stresses both of these. The infant is not just a hungry demander of love and attention. He is also and as important a giver. The acceptance of what he gives is as important to his development and maturation as is the giving.

"It is only in so far as such assurance is forthcoming in a form sufficiently convincing to enable him to depend safely upon his real objects that he is able gradually to renounce infantile dependence without misgiving. In the absence of such assurance his relationships with his objects is fraught by too much anxiety over separation to enable him to renounce... infantile dependence; for such a renunciation would be equivalent in his eyes to forfeiting all hope of ever obtaining the satisfaction of his unsatisfied emo­tional needs. Frustration of his desire to be loved as a person and to have his love accepted is the greatest trauma that a child can experi­ence, "(p.39.1941, my emphasis).

Bowlby, in discussion, once said that it was intolerable for a child under nine to accept that his parents do not love him. If we take the Fairbairnian line we could add that it may be just as intolerable to discover that one's love is not accepted, and possibly even more traumatic to dis­cover that it is not even recognised.

But to abandon infantile dependence is not easy, it " involves an abandonment of relationships based upon primary identifica­tion in favour of relationships with differentiated objects". ( )

But for the infant abandonment is death. Being sent to Coventry, difficult for any adult, is intolerable for the infant because “psychologically speaking, identification with the object and infantile dependence are but two aspects of the same phenomenon”. ( )


This constitutes the core dilemma of the transitional phase, when the child is attempting

(7 Id

to establish his separateness and autonomy as a person, a separate source of volition

The nature of the need changes as the infant matures and becomes increasingly aware. The infant who has had a good enough experience of a physically and emotionally responsive📷 mother slowly begins to tolerate

T6oleratasing periods of her physical absence without collapsing into either a flat lifelessness or hysterical tolerate increasing periods of her physical absence without collapsing into flat emptiness or hysterical screaming. This slow process of tolerance of physical separation of self and mother is rendered possible not only by normal maturation but by the secure base provided by a positive experience of an actually responsive mother. On the basis of establishment of the expectation of a co-operative loving mother, the infant can tolerate waiting with increasing confidence. He is beginning a successful journey to individuation.

3 Mature dependence.

For Fairbairn, mature dependence, unlike primary dependence is conditional. The mature adult though dependant on his objects, can desert them.

"If a mature individual loses an object, however important, he still has

some objects remaining. His eggs are not all in one basket. Further he has

a choice of objects and can desert one for another, "(p.47)

For mature individuals, natural objects are plural. Mature relatedness implies the capacity to relate to differentiated others with the capacity to relate to at least one individual with the geni­tal organs.

For Fairbairn,

"The real significance of the genital stage lies in a maturity of object rela­tionships, and that a genital attitude is but an element in that maturity. "(p32). "The real point about the mature individual is not that the libidinal attitude is essentially genital, but that the genital attitude is essen­tially libidinal." ( )

The emotionally mature adult seeks the object through a number of channels, among which the genital channel plays an essential, but by no means exclusive, part. Therefore the acheivement of mature adult genitality is dependant on the relative resolution of the problems and vicis­situdes of infantile dependance.

Mature adult love is therefore a transformation of infantile love, not a replica. 📷

The mature adult can relinquish the relationship with an unsatisfactory object. They can let the other go. The alternative is not being sent into an intolerable wilderness. However, there are limits. Being sent to Coventry still presents a hazard.

The implication of this thesis is that for the route to mature dependance to be open, the maintenance of personal identity must no longer rest exclusively or predominantly upon a single other as in the early infant-mother dyad.

4 The separation-individuation process.

The process of development from infantile dependence with primary identification to mature adult genital dependence is a separation-individuation process involving a necessary transition from unconditional to conditional dependance. This process for the human subject entails the capacity to differentiate between self and others. An alternative other is required for the feasiblity of well grounded tolerable differentiation of self and other to occur. Others exist in external reality. The individual has to come to terms with them as separate cores of initia­tive, who may or may not respond to his needs.

But at each stage of the developmental process the path to separation and individuation can be blocked and distorted. The possibility of a choice of objects is a pre-requisite for the possibility of choosing an object.

There are two requirements for a successful separation and individuation process. First, the ability to slowly give up the dependence on the objects of the infantile and transitional stages of development. Second, the permission to give them up, to break the dyadic relationship established in the early stages. Permission is required at this stage because the need is still powerful, the fear of loss and abandonment still there, the self yet unformed and unprepared to stand alone.

However, because of the absolute dependance of the human infant in reality, separation anxiety or fear of loss of the representation of the mother as a good object constitutes intolerable trauma. The extent of the degree of the encapsulating identification is a reflection of a compulsive need. Compulsion is the hallmark of the persistent unmet, unrelinquished 📷underlying infantile, addictive need. This toxic dependence needs to be abandoned for "the gradual adoption of an object relationship based upon differentiation of the object, "(p.34.)

Emergent separateness as a differentiated person can be based on the purely rejective, reactive basis of the "No", the core of self assertion by differentiation. But this emergent indi­viduated voice can be jeopardised by fear of rejection. Self assertion then can become permeated by fears of abandonment. This toxic dependence can also be strengthened by the vulnerability of the actual other. The child sometimes needs to protect and preserve the mother to preserve himself.


Identification for Fairbairn, "essentially represents a failure to differentiate the object ".(p. 42) but perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a failure to differentiate the self. Such a failure can lead to feelings of intolerable impotence, rage, need and futility. Individuation, which entails the owning of experience in relation to the other can also be denied and repressed by a process of secondary identification. The conscious self submits to the presumed tolerance and values of the other. This solution masks the intolerable impotence and destructive rage in a situation where there is no-one to turn to.

The child attempting to repudiate infantile submissive dependence on the temporarily uncooperative and therefore ‘bad' mother can sometimes turn to the father, or a surrogate benign aunt or uncle. He can afford to see his mother as frustrating and v2bad'. He can reject her for at least a period of time. The chosen, emotionally available other functions as a safe object mitigating the dyadic relationship with the mother when she seems too malign and unyielding. He is no longer in a position of monopoly dependance. On the basis of this experi­ence, he or she can defy her proscriptions and risk the expression of a differentiated separate self outside her confines.

Emotionally the child is establishing bridges to others. But this requires receptive avail­able others. In the course of normal development, there are other worlds. Other alternatives slowly emerge, for example beloved school teachers enable developmental pathways which lead to increasing separation and individuation. The constraining circle of parental acceptance is gradually mitigated and expanded.

But the closest other substitute for the child may not be available. The father may be too absent or too rejective to provide an alternative for the child. Moreover, this process of finding others can be jeopardised by the mother who cannot tolerate her child loving another. The mother cannot tolerate the loss of the dyadic relationship. She may withhold the necessary permission for separation. The child's capacity to establish and find others can be jeopardised by his awareness of her need to stay centre stage. The mother's incapacity to mourn the sepa­ration entailed by the dawning independance of her child blocks the separateness of the child. This is evidenced by some mothers who cannot accept the child's relationship with the father, and later take the child's developing outwardly directed sexuality as rejection. This is often found with male patients who had been aware of their mother's jealous undermining of their early interest in girls. Again fear of rejective abandonment permeated their emergent sexuality but unfortunately this fear of abandonment merely intensifies the need for the mother.

Due aknowledgement of the limits of the parents may mean recognition of such failures in empathy that there is little possibility for mutually rewarding shared experience. But for the infant, given his primary need for responsive loving contact, such a recognition creates an intolerable annihilatory anguish. Such a recognition must be prevented and avoided for sur­vival. Defensive structures must be erected. And we move into the world of pathology.

5 Summary.

Fairbairn's developmental theory represents a journey from primary identification to mature separation and individuation. At each stage of this process there is a phase-appropriate natural object, and a phase appropriate relationship to this object. Moving from one phase to another involves the abandoning of an object, or a particular way of relating to the object and substituting for it the next appropriate object or relationship.

Each stage of this process from primary identification to a mature object relationship can be rendered traumatic by frustration leading to an inability to negotiate the next steps in the process. Defensive structures are developed to cope with any such traumas.

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