FAIRBAIRN and Sadomasochistic Dynamics
vs. GUNTRIP and Schizoid Dynamics
by Martha Stark, MD
Faculty, Harvard Medical School
Fairbairn’s Ambivalent Attachment to the “Seductive” Object
In order better to appreciate what fuels the intensity with which relentlessly hopeful patients move towards their objects and relentlessly outraged patients move against their objects, we turn now to W. R. D. Fairbairn (1954), who is perhaps best known for “the libido is fundamentally object-seeking not pleasure-seeking” and his delightfully pithy "A bad object is infinitely better than no object at all" – this latter a concept that, I believe, accounts in large part for the relentlessness of the patient's infantile pursuit of her objects – both the relentlessness of her hope and the relentlessness of her outrage in the face of being denied.
Over the years, many have written about internal bad objects (or pathogenic introjects) to which the patient is attached; but few have addressed the critical issue of what exactly fuels these intense attachments.
It is to Fairbairn that we must look in order to understand the nature of the patient's attachment to her internal bad objects, an attachment that makes it difficult for her to separate from the (now-introjected) infantile object and therefore to extricate herself from her relentless pursuits (Model 2) and her compulsive repetitions (Model 3).
Let me review what Fairbairn has to say about how bad experiences at the hands of the infantile object are internally recorded and structuralized.
Writes Fairbairn, when a child's need for contact is frustrated by her mother, the child deals with her frustration by defensively introjecting the bad mother. It is as if the child finds it intolerably painful to be disappointed by her mother; the child, to protect herself against the pain of having to know just how bad her mother really is, therefore introjects her mother's badness – in the form of an internal bad object. Basically, in order not to have to feel the pain of her grief, the child takes the burden of her mother's badness upon herself.
As we know, this happens all the time in situations of abuse. The patient will recount episodes of outrageous abuse at the hands of her mother (or her father) and will then say that she feels not angry but guilty. After all, it is easier to experience herself as bad (and unlovable) than to experience the parent as bad (and unloving). It is easier to experience herself as having deserved the abuse than to confront the intolerably painful reality that the parent should never have done what she did.
More generally, a child whose heart has been broken by her parent will defend herself against the pain of her grief by taking on the parent’s badness as her own, thereby enabling her to preserve the illusion of her parent as good and as ultimately forthcoming if she (the child) could but get it right.
In essence, by defensively introjecting the bad parent, the child is able to maintain an attachment to her actual parent and, as a result, is then able to hold on to her hope that perhaps someday, somehow, some way, were she to be but good enough, try hard enough, suffer long enough, she might yet be able to compel the parent to change.
And so it is that the child remains intensely attached to the (now-introjected) bad object. Again, says Fairbairn, a relationship with a bad object is infinitely better than no relationship at all – because, although the object is bad, the child can at least still hope that the object might someday be good.
But, to repeat, what does Fairbairn suggest is the actual nature of the child's attachment to the internal bad object?
As we have just seen, the child who has been failed by her mother takes the burden of the mother's badness upon herself. Introjection, therefore, is the first line of defense.
Moments ago I had suggested that, according to Fairbairn, a bad mother is a mother who frustrates her child's longing for contact. But, writes Fairbairn, a seductive mother, who first says yes and then says no, is a very bad mother.
Fairbairn's interest is in these very bad mothers – these seductive mothers.
More specifically, Fairbairn posits that when the child has been failed by a mother who is seductive, the child will introject this exciting but ultimately rejecting mother.
Introjection, therefore, is the first line of defense; but splitting is the second line of defense.
Fairbairn’s concept of splitting is to be distinguished from Kernberg’s (1995) concept of borderline splitting, in which an object is pre-ambivalently experienced as either all good (and therefore libidinally cathected) or all bad (and therefore aggressively cathected) – splitting that goes hand in hand with the borderline’s tenuously established libidinal object constancy (or evocative memory capacity) and notoriously defective capacity to internalize good.
Once Fairbairn’s bad object is inside, it is split into two parts – the exciting object that offers the enticing promise of relatedness and the rejecting object that ultimately fails to deliver. Two questions – one of which is a trick question. Is the rejecting (depriving) object a good object or a bad object? Yes, a bad object. Is the exciting (enticing) object a good object or a bad object? That was the trick question – it too is a bad object!
Splitting of the ego goes hand in hand with splitting of the object. For Fairbairn, there is no id; rather, the ego is a dynamic structure, a structure with its own reservoir of id energy – its own libido and its own aggression.
The so‑called libidinal ego attaches itself to the exciting object and longs for contact, hoping against hope that the object will be forthcoming. The antilibidinal ego (which is a repository for all the hatred and destructiveness that have accumulated as a result of frustrated longing) attaches itself to the rejecting object and rages against it.
What then is the actual nature of the patient's attachment to the bad object? It is, of course, ambivalent; it is both libidinal and antilibidinal (or aggressive) in nature. The bad object is both needed because it excites (which is why it is libidinally cathected) and hated because it rejects (which is why it is aggressively cathected).
To reiterate: Kernberg’s good object is an object that gratifies and is therefore libidinally cathected. But when that object frustrates, it becomes a bad object that is then aggressively cathected. The object is therefore either a good object or a bad object and is either loved or hated (pre-ambivalence).
By contrast, Fairbairn’s good object is an object that gratifies and is therefore libidinally cathected. But when that object frustrates, it becomes a bad object that is both libidinally and aggressively cathected – and is both loved and hated. Fairbairn’s attachment to the bad object is therefore ambivalent, which explains the patient’s reluctance to relinquish her attachment to it. Although furious (relentless outrage) when frustrated by the object, she is still hopeful (relentless hope) that it might yet come through for her.
A story that Guntrip (1973) recounts is that Fairbairn had once asked a child whose mother would beat her cruelly, “Would you like me to find you a new, kind Mommy?” to which the child had immediately responded with, “No, I want my own Mommy.” Fairbairn interpreted the child’s response as speaking to the intensity of not only the antilibidinal (or aggressive) tie to the bad object but also the libidinal tie to the bad object – the idea being that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, and certainly better than no devil at all!
In any event, repression is the third line of defense, repression of the ego's attachment to the exciting/rejecting object.
According to Fairbairn, then, at the core of the repressed is not an impulse, not a trauma, not a memory; rather, at the core of the repressed is a forbidden relationship – an intensely conflicted relationship with a bad object that is both loved and hated. Such a relationship involves both longing and aversion, desire and revulsion – although because the attachment is repressed, the patient may be unaware that both sides exist.
What this means clinically is that patients who are relentless in their pursuit of the bad object must ultimately acknowledge both their intense longing for the object and their outraged disappointment in the aftermath of the (seductive) object’s failure of them.
And until the patient genuinely grieves the unmastered relational failures that have brought her to this place (whether such failures involved absence of good and/or presence of bad), she will remain hostage to her internal bad objects, which she both loves and hates, and will therefore be unable to extricate herself from the bonds of her infantile attachments, her relentless pursuits, and her compulsive repetitions – ever in futile pursuit of a different outcome, a better resolution this next time.
As Albert Einstein (1995) once quipped, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Guntrip’s Schizoid Withdrawal from All Objects
Whereas the endopsychic situation of the schizoid personalities in whom Fairbairn is interested is one of intense and ambivalent attachment to the internal bad (seductive) object to the exclusion of all external relationships, the endopsychic situation of the schizoid personalities in whom Guntrip is interested is one of psychic retreat from all relationships – both external and internal.
Guntrip (1969) describes the schizoid stance as one of emotional detachment from all objects – the heart of such patients having taken flight because engagement in relationship and in life itself simply hurts too much. The innermost self of the schizoid has secretly withdrawn and retreated to an objectless world. It is just too painful even to hope for something different.
The schizoid attempts to cancel relationships, to want no one, and to make no demands. The resolve is to live in a detached fashion, untouched, without feeling, aloof, keeping people at bay, avoiding at all cost commitment to anyone.
Of one of his patients who reported to him, “I don’t seem to come here,” Guntrip (1969) writes that it was “as if she came in body but did not bring herself with her. She found herself in the same state of mind when she asked the young man next door to go for a walk with her. He did and she became tired, dull, unable to talk; she commented: ‘It was the same as when I come here: I don’t seem to be present.’ Her reactions to food were similar. She would long for a nice meal and sit down to it and find her appetite gone, as if she had nothing to do with eating.”
Guntrip (1969) goes on to write, “External relationships seem to have been emptied by a massive withdrawal of the real libidinal self. Effective mental activity has disappeared into a hidden inner world; the patient’s conscious ego is emptied of vital feeling and action – and seems to have become unreal. You may catch glimpses of intense activity going on in the inner world through dreams and fantasies, but the patient’s conscious ego merely reports these as if it were a neutral observer not personally involved in the inner drama of which it is a detached spectator. The attitude to the outer world is the same: non-involvement and observation at a distance without any feeling, like that of a press reporter describing a social gathering of which he is not a part, in which he has no personal interest, and by which he is bored.”
It is the terrifying fear of being annihilated by the object that drives the patient to detach herself completely from the world of objects and to renounce all hope. But it is the terrifying fear of ego dissolution when confronted with how utterly alone she then feels that compels her to reach out once more for contact.
Much as described by Modell (1996), Laing (1990), and Burnham (1969), Guntrip’s schizoid is caught in the throes of a terrible need-fear – wish-dread – dilemma. On the one hand, she desperately needs objects but is terrified that she will be destroyed by them; on the other hand, she desperately needs her solitude but is terrified that she will then disappear.
More specifically, Guntrip (1969) writes that the patient’s wish to merge and to become as one with the object is in conflict with her antithetical defensive quest for an illusory self-sufficiency.
As a result, the schizoid rarely experiences moments of authentic meeting (without which life is empty and meaningless) because those moments of engagement, though precious, are fraught with so much fear. Although intensely terrifying, such moments are nonetheless desperately needed in order to give meaning to an existence that would otherwise remain desolate, barren, and impoverished.
Fairbairn‘s Relentless Hope and Relentless Outrage
vs. Guntrip’s Relentless Despair
Now to compare Fairbairn (1954) and Guntrip (1969):
(1) Fairbairn believes that for the schizoid “a bad object is infinitely better than no object at all.” Although the following are not Guntrip’s actual words, Guntrip could well have said that for the schizoid “no object at all is infinitely better than running the risk of encountering a bad object that could shatter the heart into a million pieces.”
(2) Whereas Fairbairn writes about patients for whom attachment to objects, even bad objects, is absolutely essential, Guntrip writes about patients for whom attachment to objects, even good objects, is intolerable.
(3) Whereas Fairbairn’s patients are entangled with, and compulsively attached to, their objects, Guntrip’s patients have abandoned relationships with objects altogether.
(4) For Fairbairn, the patient’s regressive longings relate to a desire to remain attached to the bad object; for Guntrip, however, the patient’s regressive longings relate to a desire to retreat from the world and to withdraw into total isolation.
(5) Finally, for Fairbairn, the greatest resistance in therapy is the patient’s tenacious attachment to the bad object; for Guntrip, however, the greatest resistance in therapy is the patient’s impenetrability and dread of surrender to dependence upon another.
Appropriation of Guntrip’s Definition
of Schizoid Phenomena for Model 4
I use Fairbairn to inform my understanding of relentless hope and relentless outrage (the province of Models 2 and 3) and Guntrip to inform my understanding of relentless despair (the province of Model 4).
More specifically, I use Fairbairn’s depiction of the schizoid’s endopsychic situation – one that involves intense, ambivalent, and painful attachment to the internal bad object – as my conceptual framework for both the masochistic defense of relentless hope (masochistic in the sense that it involves ongoing suffering, sacrifice, and surrender in a desperate but futile attempt to extract from the object something that will never be forthcoming) and the sadistic defense of relentless outrage (sadistic in the sense that it involves the unleashing of a torrent of self-righteous indignation and abuse – in the aftermath of being disappointed – either towards the object for having failed to deliver the narcissistic supplies or towards the self for having failed in her efforts to extract them).
Let me hasten to add that my interest is not specifically in how sadomasochism might get played out in the sexual arena – about which I know very little. Rather, I conceive of sadomasochism as a dysfunctional relational dynamic that will get played out, to a greater or lesser extent, in most of the relentless patient’s significant relationships.
In any event, I am now proposing that we use Guntrip’s depiction of the schizoid’s endopsychic situation – one that involves a more extreme retreat from the world of objects and, even, from life itself – as our conceptual framework for Model 4 and the schizoid defense of relentless despair and profound hopelessness (schizoid in the sense that it involves self-protective withdrawal, psychic retreat, emotional detachment, impenetrability, solitary suffering, haunting loneliness, illusions of grandiose self-sufficiency, and denial of object need).
To review: Relentless hope is at the heart of Model 2 (self psychology and other deficit theories advancing the idea that relational failures in the there-and-then fuel the patient’s desperate – albeit futile – search for restitution in the here-and-now), and relentless outrage is at the heart of Model 3 (the contemporary relational perspective advancing the idea that relational failures in the here-and-now reopen old wounds and unmastered feelings of victimization and outraged indignation).
Both relentless hope and relentless outrage speak to relentless pursuit of the unattainable and generally go hand in hand.
But whereas Model 2 is about structural deficit, narcissistic defenses, unrealistic expectations, and relentless hope and Model 3 is about relational conflict, character disordered defenses, denial of responsibility, externalization, and relentless outrage, Model 4 (a more existential-humanistic perspective) is about relational deficit – the result of a heart shattered by a devastatingly annihilating response from the object and subsequent (defensive) psychic retreat.
Burnham, D. L. (1969). Schizophrenia and the Need-Fear Dilemma. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
Fairbairn, W. R. D. (1954). An Object-Relations Theory of the Personality. New York: Basic Books.
Guntrip, H. (1969). Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations, and the Self. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
Laing, R. D. (1990). The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth, West Drayton, UK: Penguin.
Modell, A. (1996). The Private Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.