The Foundations of Psychiatry

By Silvano Arieti | Go to book overview

B. Psychoanalytic
Object Relations Theory:
The Fairbairn-Guntrip Approach

Harry Guntrip


Forerunners of Object
Relations Theory

FAIRBAIRN was the first psychoanalyst to work out a full-scale, systematic object relations theory of our psychic life as persons growing in relationships. But it would be a mistake to associate object relations theory exclusively with his name. He would have disapproved of any attempt to create yet another school of theory. Fairbairn was no sectarian, but a philosophically, scientifically, and artistically educated man, "seeing life steadily and seeing it whole," but, above all, following the clues provided by the actual pressure of the patient's experiences on the necessarily limited first attempt of Freud to create a psychobiology of human living. Thus he wrote:

The clinical material from which the whole of my special views are derived may be formulated from the general proposition that libido is not primarily pleasure-seeking, but object-seeking. The clinical material on which this proposition is based may be summarized in the protesting cry of a patient to this effect—"You're always talking about my wanting this and that desire satisfied: but what I really want is a father"6 (p. 137).

Fairbairn observed that after the introduction of the superego concept, Freud failed to make the necessary modification of his biological libido theory that this new object relational concept demanded. In fact, object relations theory is the development of the personal aspect of Freud's theory, as distinct from the physical or biological aspect, and it was really there from the start as soon as Freud abandoned as impossible to achieve his first attempt to formulate his findings in neurophysiological terms. Thereafter, the physical and the truly psychological, the biological and the personal, alternated between being confused and being distinguished at every stage of Freud's theoretical development. Object rela

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