Ronald Fairbairn

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Part of a series of articles on
Freud's couch, London, 2004 (2).jpeg
Fairbairn's birthplace - The Red House, Cluny Gardens
Ronald Fairbairn's grave, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn (/ˈfɛərbɛərn/) FRSE (11 August 1889 – 31 December 1964) was a Scottish psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and a central figure in the development of the object relations theory of psychoanalysis.


Ronald Fairbairn was born at the Red House, Cluny Gardens,[1] in Morningside, Edinburgh in 1889, the only child of Cecilia Leefe and Thomas Fairbairn, a chartered surveyor, and President of the Edinburgh Architectural Association.[2][3] He was educated at Merchiston Castle School and at the University of Edinburgh where he studied for three years in divinity and Hellenic Greek studies, graduating MA in 1911.

In the First World War he joined the Royal Engineers and served under General Allenby in the Palestinian campaign, and then the Royal Garrison Artillery.

On his return to home he began medical training, probably inspired by his war experience. He received a doctorate in Medicine (MD) on 30 March 1929 from the University of Edinburgh.[4] From 1927 to 1935 he lectured in psychology at the University and also independently practised analysis. From 1941 until 1954 he was Consultant Psychiatrist to the Ministry of Pensions.[3]

In 1931 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers were James Drever, Edwin Bramwell, Sir Godfrey Hilton Thomson and Robert Alexander Fleming.

On the basis of his writings he became an associate member of the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1931, becoming a full member in 1939. Fairbairn, though somewhat isolated in that he spent his entire career in Edinburgh,[5] had a profound influence on British object relations and the relational schools. Fairbairn was one of the theory-builders for the Middle Group[6] (now called the Independent Group) psychoanalysts. The Independent Group contained analysts who identified with neither the Kleinians nor the Anna Freudians. They were more concerned with the relationships between people than with the "drives" within them.

He died in Edinburgh at the age of 75. He is buried with his wives in Dean Cemetery in western Edinburgh. The grave lies very close to the main east entrance and lodge-house.


In 1926 Fairbairn married Mary Ann More Gordon (1901–1952) the daughter of Harry More Gordon. Their daughter Ellinor was born in 1927, followed by twins in 1928, however they did not survive. Their fourth child was born in 1929, and in 1933 their fifth son Nicholas was born, who would go on to become a barrister and MP.[2]

In 1959 he married Marion Frances Mackintosh (1907–1995), daughter of Captain H. E. M. Archer.[2]


Fairbairn's works include: Psychoanalytical Studies of the Personality (1952) and From Instinct to Self: Selected Papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn (1994). There is also a biography by John Derg Sutherland, Fairbairn’s Journey into the Interior (1989), a study of his work by James Grotstein and R. B. Rinsley, Fairbairn and the Origins of Object Relations (1994), and an edited study by Neil J. Skolnik and David E. Scharff, Fairbairn Then and Now (1998).

Psychoanalytical Studies of Personality (1952)[edit]

Psychoanalytical Studies of Personality (1952) is a collection of papers previously published in different reviews. The book is divided into three parts, the first being mostly theoretical, the second one clinical, and the third one concerning more general problems. The first four articles contain the largest body of the most innovative Fairbairn concepts. The table of contents entails:

  • Part One: An Object-Relations Theory of the Personality
  1. Chapter I: Schizoid Factors in the Personality (1940)
  2. Chapter II: A Revised Psychopathology of the Psychoses and Psychoneuroses (1941)
  3. Chapter III: The Repression and the Return of Bad Objects (with special reference to the ‘War Neuroses) (1943)
  4. Chapter IV: Endopsychic Structure Considered in Terms of Object-Relationships (1944)
  5. Chapter V: Object-Relationships and Dynamic Structure (1946)
  6. Chapter VI: Steps in the Development of an Object-Relations Theory of the Personality1 (1949)
  7. Chapter VII: A Synopsis of the Development of the Author's Views Regarding the Structure of the Personality (1951)
  • Part Two: Clinical Papers
  1. Chapter I: Notes on the Religious Phantasies of a Female Patient (1927)
  2. Chapter II: Features in the Analysis of a Patient with a Physical Genital Abnormality (1931)
  3. Chapter III: The Effect of a King's Death Upon Patients Undergoing Analysis (1936)
  • Part Three: Miscellaneous Papers
  1. Chapter I: The Sociological Significance of Communism Considered in the Light of Psychoanalysis (1935)
  2. Chapter II: Psychology as a Prescribed and as a Proscribed Subject (1939)
  3. Chapter III: The War Neuroses—Their Nature and Significance (1943)
  4. Chapter IV: The Treatment and Rehabilitation of Sexual Offenders (1946)

Innovative concepts[edit]

The object-seeking libido[edit]

One of the most important contributions of Fairbairn to the psychoanalytic paradigm is proposing an alternative viewpoint regarding the libido. Whereas Freud assumed that the libido is pleasure seeking, Fairbairn thought of the libido as object seeking.[7][8] That is, he thought that the libido is not primarily aimed at pleasure, but at making relationships with objects external to the self. The first connections a child makes are with his parents. Through diverse forms of contact between the child and his parents, a bond between them is formed. When the bond is formed, the child becomes strongly attached to his parents. This early relationship shapes the emotional life of the child in such a strong way that it determines the emotional experiences that the child will have later on in life, because the early libidinal objects become the prototypes for all later experience of connection with others.

Unity of energy and structure[edit]

Internal object relations[edit]

Fairbairn states that the object relations a child has very early on in life become the child's prototypes for all later experiences regarding connections with others. The internal object relation describes a relation which exists in the person's mind. In the normal situation, healthy parenting results in a child with an outward orientation towards real people, who can give real contact and exchange. When the needs of the child are not met by the parents (e.g. dependency needs and the need for affirmative interactions) a pathological turning away from external reality takes place. Instead of actual exchange with others, fantasised, private presences are established, the so-called internal objects. To these internal objects the child relates in fantasised connections, the internal object relations.

The splitting of the ego[edit]

Fairbairn envisioned all children as being totally and absolutely dependent on their parents. Because of this dependency they cannot tolerate "knowing" that their parents are indifferent, abandoning, and perhaps even abusive. They solve the problem of "knowing" about their parents' rejection of them by dissociating memories of interactions that were intolerably rejecting. During Fairbairn's time, the defense of dissociation was seen as an extreme defense, only used in life-threatening situations. Fairbairn had worked in an orphanage associated with the University of Edinburgh [9]as one of his part-time appointments. He recognized that the child's extreme dependency on their parents, make any abandonment a major trauma, and dissociation was needed to erase the event from their consciousness. The memory of the rejecting parent, along with the memory of the child's response to that parent, are dissociated and held tightly in the unconscious. This allows the child to continue loving a parent that he sees as completely supportive. Once dissociated, these memories of the child in relationship to the parent are held in the unconscious by repression and become internal ego structures over time. In families where rejection is commonplace, the thousands upon thousands of dissociated memories become powerful sub-personalities. Memories of the enraged, rejecting or indifferent parent must be dissociated for if the child were to "see" this reality it would destroy his dependency relationship on the parent and he would face a complete abandonment crisis. In addition to the memories of the rejecting parent (The Rejecting Object in Fairbairn's model) the child must also dissociate memories of himself during the interpersonally rejecting event. Fairbairn called the dissociated memories of the child's self as he experienced and reacted to the parent's rejection of him and his legitimate needs, the Antilibidinal Ego. These memories of the self as fearful, defeated, shamed and humiliated cannot be tolerated consciously, for they too would expose the parent in a negative light and thus break the child's needed attachment to the parent. The relationship between the antilibidinal ego and the rejecting object become continues unabated in the inner world. This relationship has been described by Ogden (2018);

" Neither the rejecting object nor the internal saboteur (the antilibidinal ego) is willing or able to think about, much less relinquish, that tie. In fact, there is no desire on the part of either to change anything about their mutual dependence. The power of that bond is impossible to overestimate. The rejecting object and the internal saboteur are determined to nurse their feelings of having been deeply wronged, cheated, humiliated, betrayed, exploited, treated unfairly, discriminated against, and so on.The mistreatment at the hands of the other is felt to be unforgivable. An apology is forever expected by each, but never offered by either."[10]

Within the child's inner world (his unconscious) the antilibidinal ego relates only to the "Rejecting Object", and this pair of self and object structures are unknown to the conscious Central Ego that is in contact with the acceptable aspects of the parent and with external reality. In extremely negative families there are so few supportive, positive interactions with the parents that the child is forced, by necessity to create hope for himself by developing a second set of views of himself in relationship to his parent. In Fairbairn's model the need of the child for a positive parent is so intense that he creates a "good" parent for himself. That is, without a loving parent the child's bond and attachment to his parent would be broken, and he would experience a sense of complete abandonment. This crisis is avoided by creating of a second vision of the parent, one that is based on idealization and fantasy which (mis) perceives the parent as filled with potential love. This second vision of the parent is built out of the occasional positive or tender interaction that he has experienced with his mostly rejecting parents. These rare supportive interactions are enhanced by fantasy and become a second unconscious view of the parent as loving and supportive. This potentially loving fantasy-based parent (which becomes an ego structure) was called the Exciting Object by Fairbairn, and the child's self that relates to it was called the Libidinal Ego (or Self). These two unconscious pairs (The Antilibidinal Ego that relates to the Rejecting Object, and the Libidinal Ego that relates only to the Exciting Object) are unknown to each other and to the central ego. Splitting allows the child to hate the rejecting object with a feral rage, and to love the Exciting Object with all its heart. Splitting is a defense that prevents the integration of Good and Bad Object memories into a single whole Object. Thus, a very important developmental milestone is not achieved and the individual functions at an earlier stage of development, often throughout life. Equally importantly, powerful, emotional filled memories are dissociated which impoverishes, and weakens the central ego, which is unaware of significant realities from its developmental history.[11]

Emotional deprivation and the resulting fear of abandonment leads to splitting of the ego and the split ego eventuates into Fairbairn's s Structural Theory. As just described, the psyche is split into three pairs of selves that relate to three separate objects. The three pairs of structures relate only to each other and are unaware of the other two pairs. In effect, this structural model is the beginning stage of a multiple personality, however it never develops beyond this steady state. The Central Ego develops in relationship to the supportive and nurturing parent(s) who are called the Ideal Object(s). The strength and size of the central ego varies from child to child according to how many positive, ego enhancing activities and interpersonal events they have experienced during their development. Loving, non intrusive, and emotionally supportive parents enhance their child's central ego with daily positive interactions. As the child develops over time he is able to interact with new adults and children and is able to internalize new skills, as well as develop a more complete view of himself with every interaction.

Under less favorable developmental conditions, where support and nurturance is scarce or absent, the child's central ego does not develop a richer and more rounded sense of self, rather his negative experiences are being dissociated and repressed, and his central ego is losing sight the many (negative) events in his childhood, which are banished to his unconscious structures. The ratio of conscious to unconscious structures shifts away from conscious relationships with external objects to a powerful and richly populated unconscious, with the endless bickering between the antilibidinal ego and the rejecting object, and the unrealistic fantasy world of the Libidinal Ego seeking the key to the love that it assumes (incorrectly) is stored in their parent. This powerful unconscious influences the weakened central ego and is the source of both transference and repetition compulsions.[12]


  1. ^ Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory 1889-90
  2. ^ a b c Fairbairn, (William) Ronald Dodds (1889–1964), psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/40312.
  3. ^ a b Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  4. ^ Available at the Edinburgh Research Archive.
  5. ^ Rycroft, Charles (1985). Psychoanalysis and after. Chatto. p. 132. ISBN 0-7011-2971-9.
  6. ^ Fuller, Peter (1985). Introduction to "Psychoanalysis and after". Chatto. p. 21. ISBN 0-7011-2971-9.
  7. ^ Fuller, Peter (1985). Introduction to "Psychoanalysis and after". Chatto. p. 18. ISBN 0-7011-2971-9.
  8. ^ Fairbairn, W. Ronald D. (1946). "Object-relationships and dynamic structure". The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 27 (1–2): 30–37. ISSN 0020-7578. PMID 20276932.
  9. ^ Sutherland, John Derg, 1905- ... (1999). Fairbairn's journey into the interior. Free Association Books. ISBN 1-85343-059-5. OCLC 470458410.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ Ogden, Thomas H. (8 March 2018), "Why read Fairbairn? *", Fairbairn and the Object Relations Tradition, Routledge, pp. 131–146, ISBN 978-0-429-47453-8, retrieved 20 January 2020
  11. ^ Celani,, David (2010). [isbn 978-0-231-14907-5 Fairbairn's Object Relations Theory in the Clinical Setting Columbia University Press] Check |url= value (help). Columbia University Press. ISBN 3-11-053768-0. OCLC 1007218368.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  12. ^ Celani, David (2010). Fairbairn's Object Relations Theory In the Clinical Setting. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 51–71. ISBN 978-0-231-14907-5.

External links[edit]