Ronald Fairbairn
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Ronald Fairbairn

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Fairbairn's birthplace - The Red House, Cluny Gardens
Ronald Fairbairn's grave, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn 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)

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

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.[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

Internal object relations

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

Fairbairn recognized that children are 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 that was 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 and his experiences with children separated from their families alerted him to the reality that the child's extreme dependency on their parents makes any abandonment a major trauma. The powerful dissociative defense 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 forced into the unconscious and held there by repression. 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 become internal ego structures over time. In families where rejection is commonplace, the thousands upon thousands of dissociated memories accrue and become powerful sub-personalities. Memories of the angry, annoyed, 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 an 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 these interpersonally rejecting interactions. Fairbairn called the ego structure that develops from 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 antagonistic and bickering relationship between the Antilibidinal Ego and the rejecting object that has been dissociated and held in the inner world continues unabated in dialogues between them, as 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 (the Ideal Object) 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. The child avoids this crisis 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 the potential of 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). The attachment between the Antilibidinal Ego and the Rejecting Object is intense as they struggle to convince each other of their claims against the other. Similarly. the attachment between the intensely needy Libidinal Ego and the Exciting Object is equally powerful. The combination of the attachments of these two mostly unconscious selves to these part objects constitutes what Fairbairn defined as an attachment to the Bad Object. The Bad Object has two facets- the rejecting facet urges the Antilibidinal Ego to complain about its mistreatment and pushes it to attempt to reform the Rejecting Object, while the Exciting Object is teased and taunted into futilely seeking the love that is always out of reach.

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, the individual never develops "object constancy" which is the ability to see a person's goodness, even when they are being rejected or frustrated by that person. Thus, a very important developmental milestone is not achieved and the individual functions at an earlier stage of development, often throughout life. Splitting causes the individual to respond to external objects as if they were two different people. When the individual is frustrated they see the object as "all bad" and devoid of any goodness. Conversely, when they are dominated by their Libidinal Ego structure they see the object as "all good". Developmentally, this is equivalent to the child who screams at her mother in a rage and minutes later says "I love you Mommy". There is no memory of the other ego state. 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]

Fairbairn's Structural Model

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. As described, the Central Ego develops in relationship to the supportive and nurturing parent(s), 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. Fairbairn's model assumes that actual events in reality summate in both the conscious central ego and in the unconscious structures as well. Thus large numbers of loving, non intrusive, and emotionally supportive interactions with the parent(s) enhance the child's central ego through daily positive relating. As the child develops over time his trust in others allows him to interact with new adults and children and is able to develop new skills, as well as enlarge a more complex view of himself through interactions with other who see aspects of himself that his parent's have not discovered.

In less favorable developmental conditions, where support, nurturance and reassurance is scarce or absent, the child's Central Ego does not develop a richer and more rounded sense of self, rather the development of his central ego is thwarted rather than enhanced. At the same time, his many negative experiences are being dissociated and repressed, and his Central Ego is losing sight the many important (but negative) events in his childhood, which are banished (and remain) in his unconscious structures. The ratio of conscious to unconscious structures shifts away from conscious relationships with external objects to the child's 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]

Fairbairn observed that abused and neglected children avoided external reality and instead focused on their inner world. The external world was ungiving, harsh and often dangerous, while their inner world was populated with safer and more manageable objects. He described the characteristics of the individual who turns to his inner world who he identified as "Schizoid" in his very first clinical paper (1940).

"These are (1) an attitude of omnipotence, (2) an attitude of isolation and detachment, and (3) a preoccupation with inner reality...So far as the preoccupation

with inner reality is concerned, this is undoubtedly the most important of all schizoid characteristics: and it is none the less present whether inner reality be substituted

for outer reality, identified with outer reality or superimposed upon outer reality [13]

When any individual superimposes or projects his inner structures on an external object (for instance, his Rejecting Object) then he is going to misperceive that individual's intentions and behavior and relate to him in a passive-aggressive and hostile manner. Thus projection of the inner structures onto external objects becomes the source of transference. This happens when the unconscious structures are powerful and the Central Ego is weakened and has poor contact with external objects.


  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 (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/40312.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  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, doi:10.4324/9780429474538-12, ISBN 978-0-429-47453-8
  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 978-3-11-053768-0. OCLC 1007218368.
  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.
  13. ^ Fairbairn, Ronald (1952). Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. pp. 6-7. ISBN 0-7100-1361-2.

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