Fairbairn’s Ambivalent Attachment to the "Seductive Object"
by Martha Stark, MD / Faculty, Harvard Medical School
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 (1954) 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.
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 (that is, 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 (1995) 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 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 once quipped, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Fairbairn, W. R. D. (1954). An Object-Relations Theory of the Personality. New York: Basic Books.
Guntrip, H. (1973). Psychoanalytic Theory, Therapy, and the Self. New York: Basic Books.