THE ALLURE OF THE BAD OBJECT
by Eleanor M. Armstrong-Perlman
Years ago when working in a psychiatric hospital I became aware that in many cases admission had been precipitated by the loss of a relationship. Such patients might vary from being acutely regressed to presenting with a florid psychotic confusional state with manic grandiosity, paranoid and phobic features. Internal reality was superimposed on external reality. I was involved in interviewing the immediate family and any other relevant, significant others. Slowly a picture emerged of what might have been the emotionally salient features precipitating the breakdown. The breakdown might have been precipitated by the marriage of a sibling who had been in loco parentis. The patient could not tolerate the loss and the phantasies that it had aroused in him. It might have been precipitated when the long-separated wife finalized divorce proceedings for remarriage. Or it might have been precipitated by more immediate and comprehensible cases of loss such as a current rejection in their erotic life.
In this hospital, there was a policy of going through previous medical records with a fine toothcomb, and, where there was a history of previous breakdowns, looking for circumstances that might explain the periods of relative remission. One would often find varying clinical features so that no neat classificatory diagnosis could be assigned. The patients concerned could be described as poly-neurotic with intermittent psychotic episodes. Borderline was not then a fashionable term. In a Fairbairnian sense, it appeared that various forms of neurotic defence had been utilized to stave off the collapse of the ego. Sometimes one found that the period of relative remission coincided with a period where the patients had been seen regularly by an interested senior registrar and that the current episode had been precipitated by his leaving. The senior registrar had become a significant figure or good object for them. Their response to loss was fragmentation.
In private practice there are emergency referrals of people with similarities to the patients described. The more acute of these referrals tend to come from psychodynamically minded general practitioners. The patient arrives complaining of fragmentation and often a fear of going mad. Again, on exploration one often finds that there was a loss, or there is a threatened loss of a relationship, which appears to function as a precipitant for the current subjective experience of a disintegrating, beleaguered, overwhelmed self. There are variations in how much they have been able to establish holding situations for themselves, in terms of their capacities to use friends or relatives to establish a containing environment.
However, the presenting situation is that the loss or impending loss of a relationship is traumatizing — traumatizing in as much as the anxiety or terror experienced has almost overwhelmed the self. An experience of loss or rejection has precipitated affects and fantasies that they cannot encompass.
With these patients one often finds a history of detachment or even active rejection of others in their erotic relationships. Such people are often significantly high achievers with an established history of being inspirational managers or teachers. But they have functioned as a resource for others. They are often acutely perceptive and adaptive to the needs of others and have done well in careers where the use of these skills is maximized.
The currently lost, or about to be lost, other has been an object of desire. They had felt ‘real’ in the relationship. But when they give a history of the relationship, one wonders at their blindness. Their object choice seems pathological or perverse. There had been indications that the other was incapable of reciprocating, or loving, or accepting them in the way they desire. They had been pursuing an alluring but rejecting object; an exciting yet frustrating object. The object initially may have offered the conditions of hope but it failed to satisfy. It had awakened an intensity of yearning but it is essentially the elusive object of desire, seemingly there but just out of reach.
These patients appear not to perceive or register how narcissisti cally damaged the other is. They assume that the rejective response of the other is due to the extent of their own need driving the other away. Or, if they do perceive the other, they have a fantasy that they can omnipotently repair them and then convert them into the loving accepting object or person that they are so desperately and obsessively seeking.
They often assume that if only they can repress the intensity of their own needs and adapt themselves to the needs of the other, the relationship offers hope, whatever the costs of personal submission. The rage consequent on the frustration and humiliation when this hope is not fulfilled may be totally repressed, or converted into anxiety, or into a somatic symptom, or deflected on to others, or turned against the self for not being able, as they see it, to submit enough or wanting too much.
The judgement of the other becomes paramount. It is as if the other becomes the ego-ideal, now externalized, who must be submitted to at all costs. The loss of the relationship, or rather the hope of a relationship, cannot be borne. The frustrating aspects of the relationship are denied as well as the consequent rage, hatred and humiliation, and the shame regarding the humiliation. It is as if they tailor themselves, their behaviour, their wishes and their fantasies to the behest or assumed needs of the other.
The shame may lead to estrangement from friends who withdraw support. They are aware only of the self-destructive nature of the relationship, and lose patience and sympathy with a relationship which, perceived at an everyday level, is perverse, or masochistic, or addictive. But the individual cannot let go no matter how malign the experience. The need is compulsive and the fantasy of loss is experienced as potentially catastrophic, leading either to the disintegration of the self or to a fear of a reclusive emptiness to which any state of connectedness, no matter how infused with suffering, is preferable. Any anguish occasioned by the relationship is preferable to the feared anguish of the acceptance of the hopelessness of the relationship. They cannot acknowledge the hopelessness of that relationship, or that its satisfactions are partial and illusory, for to give up that hope may lead to a collapse of the self. They cannot accept that the desired other perhaps cannot love them as they would wish to be loved. As Bowlby says, no child under ten can tolerate the emotional realization that his parents do not love him. But these patients are not, at least superficially, children.
For Freud, a compulsive relationship is a mark of the unconscious. For Fairbairn, is is a mark of the infantile. For both, the issue is the adhesiveness of the libido. The individual is ‘fixated’ to a particular form of object choice. For Freud, this poses a problem given the stress he puts on the pleasure principle. For Freud, it is a form of repetition compulsion or a manifestation of the death instinct. Fairbairn, however, stresses that the basic need of the individual is the acceptance of the object and that the maintenance of the relationship with the object is necessary for the psychic survival of the infant.
I believe that Fairbairn's theoretical structure provides insight into understanding the compulsive, masochistic persistence of such relationships.
Fairbairn offers a theory of the personality ‘conceived in terms of relationships between the ego and its objects, both external and internal’.(1949, p.153). In his theory, the self is reality-orientated from the start and therefore reality-constrained from the start. ‘The real libidinal aim is the establishment of satisfactory relationships with objects; and it is, accordingly, the object that constitutes the true libidinal goal’.(1946, p.138). This view would appear to have increasing empirical validation from the work inspired by researchers in attachment theory, and also in the work of developmental psychologists (Stern, 1985).
The basic need of the child is for a satisfactory relationship with the object. There is a need to relate as a whole person to a whole person. In as much as there is failure in the empathic responsiveness of the mother to her child, the child turns to other forms of substitutive satisfactions. According to Fairbairn, it is only then, if the basic needs have not been met, that the pleasure principle arises as a secondary and deteriorative principle. Thus, in Fairbairn's theory, the self develops and is structured in the context of its relationships with the parents and is affected by the actual vicissitudes of that relationship. Actual frustrations lead to the development of accentuated need and to further consequent frustration. Because of this frustration the infant develops an ambivalent attitude to his objects and is then confronted with an ambivalent object that he finds both exciting and rejecting. It tantalizes and is thus exciting but in as much as it frustrates it is rejecting. If the mother is too frustrating, given his absolute need of her, she becomes infinitely desirable but at the same time she is infinitely frustrating which gives rise to his hatred.
The mother thus has a duality of aspects. She represents both hope and hopelessness. For Fairbairn the strength of the ambivalence is related to the actual frustrations experienced at the hands of the object. ‘Ambivalence is not itself a primal state, but one which arises as a reaction to deprivation and frustration’.(1951a, p.171). It is rooted in the subjective experience of the infant with its particularities related to a particular mother's interaction pattern. Again there is empirical validation for this. Attachment patterns are established which are related to the actual capacities of the mother to respond empathically to the needs of her child, as has been shown by Ainsworth (1982).
Frustration gives rise to aggression which represents ‘a reaction on the part of the infant to deprivation and frustration in his libidinal relationships — and more particularly to the trauma of separation from his mother’.(Fairbairn, 1951a, p.172). The child's ambivalence is structured by the fear of the loss of the object which, given his state of absolute dependence and need for acceptance, is necessary to his psychical and physical survival.
Given his absolute need for his parents, the child must somehow cope and defend himself against this intolerable situation. His total need does not allow a recognition of his mother as a bad object; a strategy that would solve the ambivalence, but at an intolerable psychic cost.
The first attempt at a solution is internalization. ‘With a view to controlling the unsatisfying object, he employs the defensive process of internalisation to remove it from outer reality, where it eludes his control, to the sphere of inner reality, where it offers prospects of being more amenable to control in the role of internal object’.(1951a, p.172).
Fairbairn stresses the defensive use of internalization. If one considers that a defence always has a protective function, the protective function of internalization in this case would be to preserve the image of his mother as a safe person that he can safely love. By controlling the embodied expression of his emotional and physical needs, it also limits the risk of the experience of disappointment and rejection at the hands of his mother.
It is clear from Fairbairn that what is internalized at this stage is the whole object with all its contradictory and confusing features.
However, this first method of protection does not solve the problem because the main body of the object is internalized and ‘both the over-exciting and the over-frustrating elements in the internal (ambivalent) object are unacceptable to the original ego’.(1951b, p.135).
The next step in the process of defence is to cope with this internalized object. The way this is done is by splitting the internal whole object. There is conflict between the internalized object and the original ego. So the frustrating and the rejecting elements ‘are both split off from the main body of the object and repressed in such a way as to give rise to “the exciting object” and “the rejecting object”. The libidinal cathexes of these two objects, persisting in spite of their rejection, will then give rise to a splitting of the ego’ (1951b, p. 135).
This is the second step in the establishment of the child's endopsychic situation. But this step affects his ego, that part that relates, and in future will relate to and filter his perceptions of the external other, because the self splits in terms of its attachment to these internalized objects. The libidinal self is attached to the exciting objects and the anti-libidinal self is attached to the rejecting object, or, as Fairbairn calls it, the ‘internal saboteur’.
The successful maintenance of this endopsychic situation depends on both the strength of the infantile need and the persistence of the original ambivalence.
But the child still needs his mother in external reality, and the reality still persists. He has coped with this by internalization and splitting which means that he can no longer see his mother as bad. But all these strategies do not alter the reality of the mother who may continue to be frustrating and rejecting in reality. He has only altered his perception, so he is left with the problem of rationalizing and explaining to himself when she is bad. Why is she bad? How does he explain the situation to himself? Obviously because he is bad. If she does not behave to him in a loving way it is because he is bad or unlovable. His defence mechanisms to protect the relationship with his mother in external reality have left him totally unprotected, except for the illusion that if he behaves differently perhaps his mother might love him. Given his absolute dependence he cannot afford to perceive the objects he depends on as bad, so he must be bad. Given the threat of the loss of his mother he cannot risk expressing his feelings lest he lose her as a good object. The blame for the badness is attributed to the self. He can attempt to alter and control himself rather than acknowledge the confusing duality of aspects of his mother. Fairbairn puts this very strongly:
It also becomes a dangerous procedure for the child to express his libidinal need, i.e. his nascent love, of his mother in face of rejection at her hands: for it is equivalent to discharging his love into an emotional vacuum. Such a discharge is accompanied by an affective experience which is singularly devastating. In the older child this experience is one of intense humiliation over the depreciation of his love, which seems to be involved. At a somewhat deeper level (or at an earlier stage) the experience is one of shame over the display of needs that are disregarded or belittled. In virtue of these experiences of humiliation and shame he feels reduced to a state of worthlessness, destitution or beggardom. His sense of his own value is threatened; and he feels bad in the sense of ‘inferior’. The intensity of these experiences is, of course, proportionate to the intensity of his need; and intensity of need itself increases his sense of badness by contributing to it the quality of ‘demanding too much’. At the same time his sense of badness is further complicated by the sense of utter impotence which he also experiences. At a still deeper level (or at a still earlier stage) the child's experience is one of, so to speak, exploding ineffectively and being completely emptied of libido. It is thus an experience of disintegration and of imminent psychical death. (1944, p.113)
He is afraid of expressing his aggression lest he loses his good object and afraid of expressing love for fear of loss of himself. A patient of mine once said that the subjective experience of his mother's failure to respond to a loving gesture was like falling down a cliff.
The steps in Fairbairn's argument can be briefly summarized. The frustrations of an actual reality relationship with the mother lead to ambivalence. This leads to internalization as an attempt at control. This does not work, as it has merely banished the intolerable situation to the inner world. The next step is the splitting of the whole object which leads to the splitting of the self. Both these stratagems, though they effectively protect the view of the mother, do not alter the frustrating situation of the unresponsiveness of the mother. Having successfully protected the object, the only way to cope with the reality is by attacking the self.
The process I have described results in an internal trinity being established in the child. The child has become split in relation to the whole object. This may put him on a path determined by the persistence of his infantile need of looking for an object to put him together again so that he can regain the lost unity of the self. We can view the ‘perverse’ addictive object choice as an attempt to find an object which, through associative links, combines the duality of aspects of the internalized whole object. Its duality of aspects may offer the illusory hope of the reintegration of the self.
Though all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again, perhaps if he finds an object or a person that resembles his mother in her duality of aspects but in another guise, this will provide a relationship that can re-establish the lost unity of the self. The seemingly perverse, addictive, object choice should be viewed as a libidinal manifestation in an attempt to restore the lost unity of the self. It is an attempt to repeat and work through in a relationship, which has the alluring and rejective features that led to the establishment of the basic endopsychic situation which structured the splitting of the self. This structuring was necessary for the emotional survival of the self to stave off the terror and fragmentation induced by the fear of object loss, but led to a depletion of the central self. Perhaps the perverse object choice enables him to feel real. As one patient said after he was able to grieve the loss of such a relationship, at least it had enabled him to feel real rather than frozen.
Some patients are able to give a clinically detached picture of the exceedingly disturbed mother they had emotionally repudiated, a picture based not only on childhood memories but also on the mother's grossly disturbed behaviour in the present. The mother has continued to behave as an exciting and rejecting object. The exciting and rejecting aspects of the relationship have been internalized by the child. But this defence can be continuously threatened by an external relationship. The parent is not a safe object. Some of the mothers of my patients had thoughtlessly used their children for their own physical comfort until late in pubescence. The child has perhaps been confused, excited and disgusted by this, but cannot acknowledge it. Thus the original splitting is continuously threatened and there is probably increasing layering and fusion superimposed upon the internal exciting and rejecting objects. The central ego has continually to adopt fresh measures to strengthen the original repression.
But when these patients begin to elaborate on their current fears of losing, for example, their wife, one has the sudden and growing realization that they have, like Oedipus, married their mothers in ignorance. The parallels between mother and wife can be glaring, but the patients are blind to the fact that they are consumed by a desperate desiring need for their mother. This need is related to her alluring, rejecting features. The wife might behave with them in a tantalizing fashion, craving body contact but at the same time rejecting sexual contact, thus repeating the pattern of a relationship with the mother who used the child inappropriately for her own needs. She has tantalized the child sexually and in some sense excited him, but always diminished him. Like Jocasta, she had not been able to relate to her child as her son and her boundaries were blurred. She had offered him excitement. His need for her is accentuated and in conditions of stress he may turn to the only satisfactions he has known. Despair and desolation are denied and the adult then seeks sexualized but rejecting encounters, which again exacerbate the need and the frustration, but are necessary to stave off the object loss and the feared fragmentation of the self.
They are inveterate breast seekers at heart, but now the breast has become genitalized. They are seeking a relationship with a woman's body perhaps out of despair and futility about the possibility of establishing a relationship with another as a whole person.
In such cases, the father has often been psychically unavailable to the child to help him out of this stifling bond with the mother. She has been essentially his only means of satisfaction. As one patient said, ‘My mother has colonized my sexuality.’ His mother had idealized him and had behaved sexually inappropriately in an arousing fashion but she had responded to his emotional needs by shaming him. He went on to describe his later compulsive sexual re-enactments after he had been able to let them go as his ‘false comforters’. His adult sexual needs were masking his infantile clinging ones and a rapacious need for body contact, to maintain the partial satisfactions that he had known.
For Fairbairn, the eroticization of need is consequent on frustration and the resulting ambivalence arising in the original relation with the mother. And ‘the more satisfactory [are the child's] emotional relations with his parents, the less urgent are his physical needs for their genitals’.(1944, p.122).
I would like to present a case which combines the features I have been discussing. One young man sought therapy because he had had a psychotic break lasting three hours when he was delusionally convinced that there were voices on the radio accusing him of killing a prostitute. Occasionally, compulsively and with great shame, he did frequent prostitutes. When he had looked in the mirror during his temporary psychotic episode he had also hallucinated the face of his girlfriend.
On exploration, the current regression appeared to have been precipitated by his girlfriend announcing that their sexual relationship had ended because she had decided that she was a lesbian. But she still wanted him to share the same bed on a non-sexual basis. She was alluring, frustrating and rejecting.
His mother had intermittently had him in her bed until he was twelve, while his father was away on business. At the same time he had memories of his pre-school days of being isolated and alone in the house when his mother used to lock herself in her bedroom. His father, orphaned in early childhood, had been a depressed, defeated man, who during the patient's childhood, as in the present, spent his time in isolation in the kitchen. His mother had used her son collusively to air her contempt for his father as well as expressing her sexual discontents. His father was emotionally unavailable to help him out of this collusive relationship with his mother.
He was an extremely gifted achiever in the field that his mother said she had sacrificed for him. She encouraged him to succeed, apart from phone calls when she would talk about how suicidal she felt and express the wish that he would take a job in the provinces where they could live together. This would precipitate bouts of suicidal despair in him but he did not make any emotional connection between these feelings and the phone calls.
The symptom of the furtive, shamed use of prostitutes disappeared quite early in the therapy when interpreted in terms of a perverse excitement used to mask despair and desolation. Again it related to breaches in the empathic communication with either his mother or his girlfriend. His mother, though emotionally insensitive to his emotional needs, had used him physically to relieve her own desolation. She had also provided him with some satisfactions. She seemingly had a genuine capacity for humorous play. Externally he was capable of being ‘the life and soul of the party’ no matter how desperate he felt. He had sung for his emotional supper. He had bought his mother's love.
There was one later near-psychotic episode when his mother telephoned him alleging that his father was a pederast. This reinstated her as a persecutory object and I saw him as an emergency on a Sunday. In the session he focused on his feelings about his mother's lack of concern for him. This was a few weeks before he was due to marry. He was also anxious about a new career. He perceived the phone call as a destructive attack on both himself and his relationship with his father. The therapy obviously entailed working through ambivalence, murderous rage and despair. I tended to be kept as a good object, the one place where he could be himself.
Some years later, after changing his career, and after realizing that he had compliantly lived out the aspirations of his mother, he wondered if he genuinely loved the woman he later went on to marry. Though he desired her and felt genuine warmth for her, she was not an idealized object. He was aware of her neurotic anxieties and could behave assertively with her. But she did not obsess him like the girlfriend of his youth, who had wanted him in her bed but without sexual contact. She did not combine allure with rejection. She thus did not evoke his mother and thus was not totally fulfilling. His mother had been both exciting and rejecting, while blocking access to his father. He had related to a woman who was like his mother.
In the therapy, he later came to feel loving feelings for his father and to establish a relationship with him when he came to perceive that underneath all his father's blocks there was a capacity for love and affection.
I have argued that the obsessive love for the exciting object is not a random choice but a refinding of the bad object. The object has aspects that are similar to the frustrating and rejecting aspects of the original whole object. It has features related to the alluring but frustrating aspects of the original parents that led to the construction of the basic endopsychic situation.
The current interactions and reality mirror the initial trauma. As so often happens, the present gives us a clue to the past. By paying careful attention to the features of the relationship with frustrating objects we can perhaps begin to reconstruct the conditions of failure that led to the basic splitting of the self.
This externalization cannot be dismissed simply in terms of projection in as much as there is a denial of the aspects of the object that are both frustrating and rejecting. Some of the men I have worked with were the children not of depressed mothers but of hysterics who had been genuinely idealizing and rejecting with their sons. They had gone on to relate to a hysteric, but a hysteric with features similar to their mothers. Also, their mothers were hysterics who would not have satisfied E. Zetzel's criteria for the ‘good enough hysteric’ who would be amenable to treatment. They were beyond repair.
There is a need for understanding so that the person can individuate and begin to distinguish what belongs to the self and what belongs to the other. There is a need for this to be felt and to be worked through. The ambivalence must be acknowledged and worked through so that the person can begin to dissolve the cathexis to the exciting object and accept that their wish for the loving acceptance of the object is hopeless. They have to feel that this no longer means that there is no hope for the self. They have to feel that they can survive the trauma of loss with sadness and be able to mourn for that which they did not receive and acknowledge the good in what they had. As Freud writes, ‘A thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears; like an unlaid ghost, it cannot rest until the mystery has been solved and the spell broken’.(Freud, 1909, p.122).
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1982) ‘Attachment: retrospect and prospect’, in C. M. Parkes and J. Stevenson-Hinde, eds The Place of Attachment in Human Behaviour. New York: Basic; London: Tavistock, pp. 3-30.
Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge.
Fairbairn, W. R. D. (1944) ‘Endopsychic structure considered in terms of object-relationships’, in Fairbairn (1952), pp. 82-132.
Fairbairn, W. R. D. (1946) ‘Object relationships and dynamic structure’, in Fairbairn (1952), pp. 137-51.
Fairbairn, W. R. D. (1949) ‘Steps in the development of an object-relations theory of the personality’, in Fairbairn (1952), pp. 152-61.
Fairbairn, W. R. D. (1951a) ‘A synopsis of the development of the author's views regarding the structure of the personality’, in Fairbairn (1952), pp. 162-79.
Fairbairn, W. R. D. (1951b) ‘Addendum’, in Fairbairn (1952), pp. 133-6.
Fairbairn, W. R. D. (1952) Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.[à]
Freud, S. (1909) ‘Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy’, in James Strachey, ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953-73, vol. 10, pp. 3-149.
Stern, D. N. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic.[à]
Zetzel, E. R. (1968) ‘The so-called good hysteric’, in E. R. Zetzel The Capacity for Emotional Growth. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1970.
This paper was presented on 16 September 1989 at the conference on W. R. D. Fairbairn organized by the Scottish Institute of Human Relations. I am grateful to the organizers of and the participants in the conference for the stimulation they provided. I would also like to thank Frances Tustin and David Malan for their helpful comments.
Reprinted from Free Associations 2:343-356, 1991