top of page
  • Writer's picturemelaniesouthan

Chapter 5




"It is in the setting of the child's relationship to his mother that the basic endopsychic situation is established, that the differentiation of endopsychic structure is accomplished and that repression is originated; and it is only after these developments have occurred that the child is called upon to meet the particular difficulties which attend the Oedipus situation. So far from furnishing an explanatory concept, therefore, the Oedipus situa­tion is rather a phenomenon to be explained in terms of an endopsychic situation which has already developed, "(? p. 121, my emphasis).

The stressed sentence reveals the fundamental difference between Freud's and Fair­bairn's theories of the Oedipal situation.

In this chapter, I will elaborate the implication of Fairbairn's account of repres­sion for his analysis of the Oedipal situation. To understand the major break with Freud in this analysis it will be useful to first briefly remind the reader of Freud's use of Oedipus.

1 Freud's Oedipus.

Freud postulated the Oedipus Complex as an universal phenomenon rooted in our ancestry and transmitted via a Lamarckian evolutionary structure. "Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex" (1920 S.E., 7, 226 n.l.). According to Freud, children

"are compelled to recapitulate from the history of mankind the repression of an incestuous object-choice". (1919e S.E., 17:188) [both these quotes could be inside a paragraph and not separate and indented as the second one is.]

The Freudian Oedipal mise-en-scene presents us with the mother as the exciting object

of infantile sexuality and the father as the rejective-rejected castrating persecutor.

More crucially, the reason why the mother is the exciting object of infantile sexuality

is itself rooted in our ancestry. We are born condemned to carry incestuous wishes

and confront the consequences.

For the purpose of explanation of psychic phenomena the Oedipus complex is a

primary cause. It is itself not a subject for psychoanalytic explanation. Rather it is

something to be used for explaining other psychic phenomena. Freud used the

Oedipus complex to explain the most basic concept in all psychoanalytic theories, namely repression.

According to Freud repression originates as a means of suppressing the express­ion of libidinal incestuous wishes for one parent and aggressive parenticidal impulses towards the parent of the same sex in the triangular situation. The fear of castration is a projection of the child's rivalrous hostility onto the father. In the case of Little Hans, Hans has to repress his overexcited fantasies of his mother and his aggression towards his father seen as a vengeful terrifying castrator, a persecutor. Repression is necessary to preserve the affectionate relationship with the father.

2 Fairbairn's Oedipus.

For Fairbairn the Oedipal phenomenon arises after repression has already occurred. It is, the result of, rather than the cause of repression. As we saw in the last chapter repression is rooted in the beginning of our individual story, the need for the body of the mother. It originates in the maternal dyad, alienating the central ego from both the strength of the desire and the overwhelming need for the body of the mother and the strength of the fear of her as a potential annihilator if that need is expressed. Repression reduces the expression of both the libidinal and aggressive impulses of the infant to the mother, when she is the principle source of emotional life, succour and solace.

Before the emergence of the castrating father there is the primitive terror of the annihilatory mother, which eradicates her as a tangible source of loving comfort. The tri-partite division of the self is already established before the infant encounters the father as an object of emotional significance.

The Oedipal situation is thus no longer the explanatory variable for the origin of repression. It itself needs explanation. It is no longer the primary cause, the axiom from which other theorems are developed.

Let me now turn to the father. What is his role in that struggle for separation and individuation? As we saw before, in Fairbairnian theory the infant is object seek­ing from the start. The father is potentially a relational object. The Oedipal relation­ship is to be found and explained in the development of this potential.

The father is initially the person who lacks. He has a handicap. He is the parent

without breasts. Fairbairn argues that it is doubtful that the infant appreciates the

genital difference. The infant does not recognise the presence of the penis, but can be

affected by the lack of breast. It is after all via the breast that he is initially introduced

to objects. Therefore, in the early stages, the relationship with the father

"has to be made upon an almost exclusively emotional plane — feeding at the breast is necessarily precluded from his relationship with his father. Indeed it is chiefly as a parent without breasts that the child would appear to regard his father in the first instance."(p. 174.1951).

The lack of breast limits the father when it comes to comfort sucking.

By arguing that the relationship with the father is experienced primarily at the

emotional level, rather than also the tactile and bodily level Fairbairn is perhaps in

danger of underestimating the alive physicality possible in the child's relationship with the father. Perhaps his account maybe a generalisation based on the extrapolation from his own somewhat distant Scottish father who took a minimal role in child care, (see Sutherland 1989), and a possible generalization from the prevalent father child uncommon British type of father-child relationship. Psycho-analytic theories are affected by our own experiences and the culture in which they are embedded. To quote a father of twins on Sabbatical when they were born, “breast feeding was a conspiracy against men.”

Be that as it may, as the child develops, the father has more to offer. Or as the Oedipal triangular situation develops in outer reality, the child's repertoire for related-ness expands. The child is confronted with two distinct parental objects. In the course of development, the father's initial handicap of being breastless diminishes. He offers an alternative source of parental emotional responsiveness, and a separate relational opportunity. The child can establish a separate pattern of relationship with his father.

The attachment literature generated by the work of Bowlby and M. Main provides empirical evidence for separate patterns of attachment to the father and the mother. For example, the child can be anxious-avoidant with the mother and ambivalently attached to the father, or vice-versa. But the pattern established with the mother tends to dominate the future relatedness of the child to both the mother and the father. This gives some empirical corroboration for the aetiological significance of the initial relationship with the mother affecting the child's later capacity for establishing secure attachments.

With increasing awareness, the child becomes confronted by the marital rela­tionship of the parental couple. The situation becomes even more complex when the child becomes aware of the father's access to the body and attention of the mother.


She is no longer his or her possession. Dyads become triads. Joseph is intruding upon the-Madonna and child. The infant has a rival for the mother's favours. The infant has to cope with sharing. He now faces a world where his significance which is dependent on the other is diminished. The child becomes aware that there is a rival for the mother's affec­tions. This can threaten the child's image of the mother as a loving other. She is no longer his or her exclusive possession. Jealousy emerges. The presence of the other can signify loss of the mother.

Moreover, the mother is also a rival for his father's affection. The infant has a minimal place in the marital bed. The child has to cope with exclusion and with envy of the marital couple. This can lead to sadistic conceptions of the primal scene. But for Fairbairn, such envy and jealousy are determined

"not only by the biological sex of the child, but also by the state of his emotional relationships with his respective parents, "(p. 175.1951).

Jealousy and envy are not primary instinctual phenomena. They are related to, exacerbated and intensified by the intensity of the child's need and his fear of rejection. Separation anxiety exacerbates both the need and the hostility.

The corollary is that jealousy and envy and the Oedipal dilemma are modified by the child's sense of being loved for himself and having his love accepted by both parents. The child needs reassurance of his value. He needs a secure place in relation to the marital couple to enable him to tolerate and integrate the loss of the dyad, otherwise repressed ambivalence persists. Oedipus, after all was abandoned., but not everyone is abandoned, so the position from which they are able to tolerate the loss of the illusory ever doting, available ever responsive mother and accept the presence of the other varies with the experience of the child and how much the mother’s attunement to the needs of the child was “good enough” to accept that she is separate and out of his control.

Fairbairn assumes a natural tendency to separate and to tolerate increasing separation. Therefore, given optimal conditions the child slowly weans himself from the imperative need for the maternal body.

3 The creation of the Oedipal triangle.

What happens if the relationship with the father is too frustrating and echoes the previous relationship with the mother? The child again encounters the same vicis­situdes of need, frustration and rejection. The original situation is reinstated with a fresh object. There are similar problems of adjustment so he uses the same techniques as before, internalisation and splitting.

There is a new separate internalisation of the father, with the problems of the need for a loving father to be safely loved, the over-excited intensified need and the rejective hatred of the rejecting frustrating father. The tri-partite splitting of the object neatly solves the relational problem by the compartmentalisation of these relationships yet again. Underneath the cover of the conscious acceptable relationship of the central self relating to the ideal object, the over excited libidinal ego is now attached to the father as an exciting object, while the anti-libidinal ego becomes the rejected castrator. The child now has to adjust to two ambivalent relationships at the same time, neither offering the possibility of a secure attachment.

However, being insecurely attached to both parents, puts further strains on the child.

"The child finds it intolerable enough to be called upon to deal with a single ambivalent object; but when he is called upon to deal with two, he finds it still more intolerable."(?)

This confrontation with two exciting and rejecting objects is simplified by

"converting it into one in which he will only be confronted with a single exciting object and a single rejecting object; and he achieves this aim, with of course, a varying measure of success; by concentrating upon the exciting aspect of one parent and the rejecting aspect of the other. He thus, for all practical purposes, comes to equate one parental object with the exciting object, and the other with the rejecting object; and by so doing the child constitutes the Oedipus situation for himself, (? p. 124, my emphasis).

For Freud, the father whose love the child craves is the primary object of the child's ambivalence. Although he acknowledges the existence of the child's tender and sadistic feelings for his mother, the role of ambivalence to the mother is not given structural significance. The need to maintain a loving relationship with the father is enabled by the construction of the superego, an internalised object affecting psychic structure. The child represses his sexual feelings for his mother on the basis of identi­fication with the construction of the rejective father. This castrating relationship is also repressed to maintain the conditions of safety with the father.


In the Freudian version, the mother is the exciting object, the father the rejective persecutor. For Fairbairn, the too unresponsive mother has a duality of aspects both exciting and rejective. The mother is the alluring annihilator, the siren who would lure Ulysses to his death upon the rocks. He is saved by the ever-faithful imago of Penelope.

The Oedipal situation of the polarised construction of one parent as the exciting figure and the other as the rejected terrifying castrator is an internal construct. It arises from the layering and fusion of separate representations of frustration with the parents. This dichotomous polarisation of one parent as exciting and the other as rejective is a psychic simplification that

"would appear to be partly superimposed upon, and partly fused with the corresponding figures of his mother".(? p. 174.1951).

However, such a polarization does not eliminate ambivalence

"Ambivalence to both parents persists, however, in the background; and at rock bottom both the exciting object and the rejecting object remain what they originally were, viz.figures of his mother ".(? p. 125).

Moreover, even in fusion the maternal components predominate over the paternal

components of these structures because

"the nuclei of both the internal objects are derivatives of the original ambivalent mother and her ambivalent breasts."(?)

The core nuclei are established in the early dyadic relationship.

According to Fairbairn, the clinical phenomena that seem to confirm the Oedipus Complex are epi-phenomena, the product of a complex process of layering and fusion, that disguise a deeper and earlier dilemma concerning the need for the body of the mother.

This aetiological thesis of the Oedipal triangle applies to both sexes.

"The biological sex of the child plays a role, but is obviously not the sole determining factor as is evidenced by inverted and mixed Oedipal situations.”( ? )

The inverted and mixed Oedipal situations are determined by how the child constructs the exciting and the rejecting object. This will vary with the child. The same con­siderations are relevant to the construction of the positive Oedipal situation. Thus the primary need for acceptable contact can outweigh biological tendencies.

This internal situation may then be transferred to the actual external situation. The father becomes the feared persecutor while the mother is the exciting object. But the Oedipus complex is then a simplified re-allocation and simplification of underly­ing ambivalence to both parents.

Hamlet has to face exclusion when confronted with his mother's excited coup­ling with Claudius. But for Fairbairn, the Queen is the real villain of the piece. She is the exciting, fickle mother who has betrayed him by sharing her bed with Claudius.

Hamlet has no love for Claudius, who has ousted not only his father but himself from the throne of Denmark. Hamlet is so wracked by sadistic and destructive fantasies about their coupling that his own heterosexual coupling is repudiated by the antithesis of acceptance. The excitement of sexuality is converted to its antithesis disgust. The sad Ophelia, the potential object of his genital love is urged to get herself off to a nun­nery. Poor Ophelia becomes a repudiated devalued incident, in an ambivalent life or death struggle over his obsession with the sexual activity of his mother.

Clinically, one often finds the roots of pathological jealousy in early childhood. The man is jealously guarding his insecure possession of the other (mother); con­tinuously waiting for evidence of the fickleness of his partner to abandon him for the more exciting other. For such patients the fall from the dyad was too abrupt. They are emotionally locked into a triadic infantile insecurity.

Some female patients continuously pursue married men, again the perpetuation of a triad. Such patients often have a history of an impoverished relationship with their mother and an ambiguous but more exciting relationship with their father. The man is the exciting object of incestuous desire, the wife, the rejected rival, whose envied coupling is to be triumphed over. Repressed relationships originating in rela­tion to their own parents are continuously replayed to the detriment of their own coupling.

4 Clinical implications and case study.

Following his theory of the Oedipal situation Fairbairn argues that clinically

"The deep analysis of a positive Oedipus situation may be regarded as taking place at three main levels. At the first level the picture is dominated by the Oedipus situation itself. At the next level the picture is dominated by ambivalence towards the heterosexual parent: and at the deepest level it is dominated by ambivalence towards the mother, "(? p. 124).

This is

"because the child does have the experience of a physical relationship with his mother's breast while also experiencing a varying degree of frustration in this relationship that his need for his mother persists so obstinately beneath his need for his father and all subsequent genital needs ".(? p. 122).


"The nuclei of both the internal objects are derivatives of the original ambivalent mother and her ambivalent breasts. In conformity with this fact, a sufficiently deep analysis of the Oedipus situation invariably reveals that this situation is built up around the figures of an internal excit­ing mother and an internal rejecting mother, "(? p. 124).

This view of the multilayered structure of the Oedipal situation has important implications for clinical practice.

On the Freudian view when one reaches the Oedipal situation in an analysis one has hit the bedrock. One can go no further. The objective is then to somehow achieve a resolution of this problem. On the Fairbairnian view when the Oedipal situation is reached one has only reached the topmost level of a complex structure. To stop there would be to miss the underlying causes and the underlying problems that have created the Oedipal structure.

A patient in his late sixties needed a second analysis after rejection by his fiancée. His first analysis in the late fifties had been with a classical Freudian male psycho-analyst. The analysis of twelve year duration, ceased abruptly with the sudden death of the analyst.

He began his first analysis to seek treatment for his sexual problems. Though physically attractive, and very conscious since childhood of the bodies of the female sex, he was paralysed by fear. He could not make an overture even when there were indications of interest. His sexuality since early adolescence had been restricted to compulsive, secret masturbation in his mother's clothes. The compulsive masturbation had been intensely exciting. It had been a triumphant affirmation of his potency. However, though it both released and relieved intolerable tension, it was always fol­lowed by shame, guilt and despair. He was only too aware it was a surrogate for gen­uine intercourse. An enacted activity with a hallucinatory object, it failed to satisfy. He had risked exposure but had never been challenged. He had experienced his

Edwardian father at the conscious level as the man who had said you'll die if you play with yourself.

He and his elder brother had been unable to separate from their mother. Though middle-aged, they still lived in the maternal home.

The first analysis conducted at the Oedipal level, had enabled him to leave the maternal home. He was enabled to give up the fetishistic use of his mother's clothes during masturbation. This echoed a previous situation, he had been able to desist from the cross-dressing while in the navy during the war. He had a good war record, but on demob though offered a commission he had retreated to his mother. He had one attempt at intercourse during the analysis which neither party wished to repeat. His virtual near incapacity to reach orgasm had shamed him. However after the abrupt termination of the analysis by death, he was able to refrain from the cross dressing but the danger still lurked in conscious fantasy.

This analysis, presumably on the basis of the resolution of his ambivalence towards the castrating father, enabled him to establish a male identity strong enough to separate from his mother. Though he had not been as fortunate as little Hans with his actual father (he [which he?] had been consciously afraid of his rages) he was more fortunate with his analyst. He was able to come to terms with his ambivalence for his father and build on a positive identification. Unfortunately, history repeated itself with his analyst's death.

The seeming resolution of the Oedipal problem had provided symptomatic relief. He found a new life and a new profession which gave him genuine satisfaction. He developed interests and valued social contacts in a predominantly masculine milieu. This milieu was related to the elaboration and development of good experi­ence with his father. He was capable of affectionate durable friendships with men. Later, after the end of his analysis, when his mother became again dependant, he left her screaming in a psychiatric hospital. He knew that taking actual responsibility for her might have led to murder, psychically he was still entangled. Though his first analysis had enabled him to function at one level it had not enabled him to function at the genital level. He was aware that something was not being addressed.

He was referred to me by a male psycho-analyst who deemed him to be defend­ing against passive homosexuality. He had become aware of this assessment and denied it. He was genuinely grateful to his first analyst.

The later therapy with me was rendered necessary by a much later experience. His fiancée, a recently bereaved widow, ended a short engagement when he post­poned the marriage. He had refrained from consummating the relationship. He felt murderous fury at her offer of a platonic friendship. His potential rage must have been palpable, she had ended the relationship in the presence of her adult children.

He felt that his sexuality had been perverted from its natural course, and that underneath his instincts were normal. In the early days of the therapy, he was con­vinced that if he could only conquer his impotence, and achieve adult hetero-sexual intercourse, he would be liberated.

Initially, he presented with Oedipal elements. He consciously viewed his father's remembered admonitions on the evils of masturbation as killing. His father, an explosive man, who could brook no challenge to his authority, was experienced as the castrator. He had witnessed the early demolition of his rebellious older brother. He had been given the task of looking after his elder brother. His brother became a crusty seemingly asexual old batchelor. His mother's attempts to protect him from his father had been ineffectual.

His father died of a heart attack in his bath, when the patient was a teenager. This was traumatic. He remembered the sight of his father's flaccid penis in the water. He was left ensuring the survival of his disintegrating mother without help. He felt that if his father, and later his analyst, had not died he might have been able to maintain a semblance of masculinity but the underlying prob­lem would have persisted sotto-voce.

For Fairbairn, behind the projection of the castrating father there lurks the spectre of the castrating or biting mother, a veritable vagina dentata. This man spontaneously produced images of the vagina dentata. He felt horror and disgust of female genitalia. It became clear that his sexuality was stuck at the infantile level. The path to adult genitality had been blocked by his underlying over-excited but rejective ambivalent attitude to his mother's body.

In the therapy, his mother emerged as the figure behind the killing father. She had not been able to respond to his excitement. She had been ashamed of her sexu­ality, and had hidden her pregnancy. He could only envisage his father as a rapist. He had memories of his mother's beauty as she would leave for social occasions with his father. She not his father was experienced as the person who blocked access to the marital bedroom. He had been excited by the beauty of women but he had always been denied access.

Access to her body had always been barred by her shame. His relationship with his mother was characterised by a gross lack of attunement on her part. A perfect baby who never cried, and later a perfect child, he had become attuned to her fragility. A sad woman orphaned early, from a violent background, he had born the burden of preserving her, not only from her unsupportive husband but also from him­self. As a child he knew he would never have babies as he would murder them. Dur­ing the therapy, his fantasies were captivated by the allure of unavailable women, women who out of their own complexity were closed to any man. But her actual flesh was remembered and repudiated as flaccid and flabby.

His unresolved ambivalence to the body of his mother, which had marred his relationships with women became the core issue. His tension induced by his frustra­tion with the limits of therapy became a core issue.

The level of his excitement rendered relationships with women impossible. He was aware that women actively recoiled from him. He was afraid that if he fantasised about sexuality, he would grab. His excitement had always been too strong. It was death to express and death to inhibit. He had been unable to love. The aggression and hatred of women was manifest throughout the therapy. The strength of the rejective rage was too strong. He was quite rightly afraid of murder. However, the excitement was much harder to deal with. He knew he could not let himself experience me as real, because if he risked being real everything would be destroyed. He later realised this had preserved his functioning in reality. It had prevented psychosis. I became the object in his path that had to be eliminated. I was acutely aware of his guilt free wish to kill me. What held him back was that such an act would ruin his career. He was involved in the punctilious administration of the law. But he also became aware of the level of the bitterly resented infantile dependence: killing me would be equivalent to killing himself. I was the goose that laid the golden eggs.

In that session, I re-introduced the male element, by saying I took his violence seriously. I told him, I had taken the precaution of ensuring that my husband was pre­sent in the house. Later, we had to explore whether this response on my part con­firmed the transference of the ineffectual mother whom he had to protect but he acknowledged that the risk of violence had been real. It was definitely necessary for me. His ex-fiancee when she had announced that the engagement was over had had her adult sons present. Another woman at work had contacted the personnel officer when he had tried to engage.

Metaphorically he experienced his mind as a tangled mess but he could not cut or find the Gordian knot. Letting his mother go internally was equivalent to killing both her and himself. He was in a state of primary identification with his hopelessly depressed, too fragile, needy mother. Seeing her as irretrievably damaged meant that he too was irretrievably damaged.

He began to feel that he was only a hysteric at heart, a screaming infant whose cry had been suppressed. He had built a wall and had never been able to occupy the

empty space behind that wall. He did not wish to encounter the distorted ghosts that

resided there.

I once voiced my own experience that I could not experience him as real. He was ashamed saying that he was as real as he could be. I experienced myself as being misattuned.

He was at base a hysteric. The conflictual ambivalent, infantile tie to the mother had merely been repressed but not dissolved. The traces of this undissolved incestuous murderous hatred to the internalised mother erupted when his fiancée was quite firm that a sexual relationship was out of the question. The affectionate current was totally lost.

Freud writes of the tender and sadistic feelings little Hans had for his mother.

This man had not achieved such tenderness. He was incapable of meaningful affec­tionate contact with women.

This failure in adequate splitting and repression had blocked his access to geni­tal functioning. In external reality, before his first analysis, he fled from women. Afterwards he could demonstrate interest but with too much intensity, his overtures had aroused fear. They fled his advances. One had called in a Personnel Officer. The perversion had masked an intolerable ambivalence to women as exciting but barred rejective frustrators.

The analysis with me was essentially pre-Oedipal focussed on both his absolute unconditional need and his murderous rage. His capacity for separation and individuation had been confined within the malign circle of the internalised mother.

His capacity for repression and splitting had not been securely established. He had not been able to establish an affectionate infantile current for his mother. She was just not acceptable to him, she had not been good enough. He was incapable even of friendship with a woman. He knew he could not love. He was stuck in the malign cir­cle.

Hamlet's regressive predicament with Gertrude was set in motion by the sudden loss of his father. This man had lost both his father and his analyst. But unlike Hamlet he inherited a mother who wished to form an asexual couple with him. During his first analysis he had a date, for him a real achievement. His mother had thrown a hysterical fit. It became clear to him that the mother son relationship was wrong. She had told him she had never envisaged him growing up. She could not let go.

Though he left the maternal home the vice-like maternal hold was not dissolved. His genitality was totally blocked. He thought that if his father had survived he might have been able to venture forth, not just geographically but also sexually. A father might have relieved him from being the castrated male in his mother's life. As he said his mother always said he was a good-looking man, she could not understand why he did not live his life, His brother was a clerk and a scout master. He had had one girl-friend before the war and then after she found another while he was away he had never ventured forth again..

This patient and others like him, are unable to establish a sexual rapport with women. But before that they had been unable to establish a sensual, or an emotional rapport with their sexually troubled frigid mothers. Like his too needy mother, he was frigid and unable to love. He had been repelled by her need, it had been unacceptable to him. Equally, he thought he was repellent to any woman. This gave me the prob­lem of coping with my counter-transference. I had to cope with my own compassion and recoil. I was chilled by his coldness and guilt-free expression of his murderous wishes towards me. I also had to cope with primitive embodied feelings of disgust in my throat.

The most important relationship in his life was his protective attitude to his brother. His need to support him and protect him was also marred by murderous rage. He had seen his brother destroyed by his father. He could not abandon him. They had regular holidays together.

In external reality, this man consolidated his career. He became more assertive. He had regrets that he had not come back for analysis earlier. He had taken a safe position in the legal profession and was now near retirement. He was extremely active in a sporting world and had good long term but non confidential relationships with men. He made friendships with couples and was much in demand as a week-end guest. [in italics for a reason?]

For the Freudian, the eroticised need of the hysteric has a seeming genitality. Fairbairn, conversely has a different account of the eroticisation of the frustrated persistence of unmet but despairing infantile need.


For Freud the Oedipal situation is basic. It is part of the human condition. We are born with it and must cope with it. Because of the angst it induces repression arises. For Fairbairn, on the contrary, the Oedipal situation arises after repression already occurred. It is a continuation of the process which had begun with internalisation and splitting arising from the earliest encounter with the mother. The internalised splitting is externalised onto the parents. Just as the internalised good object (cf his argument in the hysterical states paper regarding the pre-ambivalent object?) had been split into the exciting and rejecting object, when this is externalised onto the real parental couple one becomes the exciting, the other the rejecting threatening object.

156 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page