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He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1889. Fairnbairn was educated at Edinburgh University where he studied three years in divinity and Hellenic Greek studies. He served with General Allenby in the Palestinian campaign, and when he returned he undertook medical training. He also taught psychology and practiced analysis.
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 had a profound influence on British object relations and the relational schools. Fairbairn was one of the theory-builders for the Middle Group (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.
Ronald Fairbairn was the father of Sir Nicholas Hardwick Fairbairn, QC (24 December 1933 – 19 February 1995), a British Politician.
Building upon Freudian notions of the unconscious and the internal representations of external objects, Fairbairn formulated a dynamic model of the intrapsychic relationships that function beneath human awareness. In describing the "endopsychic structure", Fairbairn was able to depict a system of fragmented egos and their corresponding affects. Further elaboration on these internal objects, provided a framework from which analysts could understand normal human development as well as the genesis of psychopathology. Key to Fairbairn's theory was the revision of Freud's concept of the individual as "pleasure-seeking" and replaced by the idea of the infant as "object-seeking." This placed a primacy on the relational element in the building of intrapsychic structure.
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 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).
The object-seeking libido
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. That is, he thought that the libido is not primarily aimed at pleasure but at making relationships with others. 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.
Internal object relation
Fairbairn states that the objects a child has on a very early stage of 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 persons 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. In stead of actual exchange with others, fantasied, private presences are established, the so-called internal objects. To these internal objects the child relates in fantasied connections, the internal object relations.
The splitting of the ego
Fairbairn envisioned the child with largely unavailable parents as differentiating between the responsive aspects of the parents (the good object) and the unresponsive aspects (the unsatisfying object). The child internalizes the unresponsive aspects of the parents and fantasizes those features as being a part of him, because they aren’t available in reality. This defensive technique is known as ‘splitting of the ego’, where the good and the bad parts of the parents are kept apart, and where there is no possibility to feel ambivalence. For example, when a mother is depressed and denies this, the child is unable to connect completely to his mother. Therefore, the child identifies itself with this denied part of the parent, and becomes depressed itself.
- Defensive technique
- Hysterical technique
- Object relations theory
- Obsessional technique
- Paranoid technique
- Phobic technique
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