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Chapter: Essentials of Psychiatry: Psychoanalytic Theories

Psychoanalytic Theories: Margaret Mahler

According to Mahler (1975) the newborn does not differentiate internal from external stimuli; there is only tension and satiation.

Margaret Mahler


According to Mahler (1975) the newborn does not differentiate internal from external stimuli; there is only tension and satiation. By the second month, the infant begins the “normal symbiotic phase”, in which there is a relationship characterized by an “om-nipotent fusion”, a “delusion of a common boundary” with “the need-satisfying object”. From the infant’s perspective, mother and child are a “dual unity”. If the symbiotic period progresses normally, the infant begins to develop “memory islands” and a “core sense of self”, which are preparatory for the “hatching” that will occur at about 5 months. In her description of this period, Mahler used the concepts of libido theory but also referred to both Rene Spitz’s observations of the first months of life* and to Winnicott’s concept of the holding environment.


What follows these earliest months, the period from about 5 months to beyond 3 years, is termed “the psychological birth of the human infant” by Mahler. During this time, the stages of the separation–individuation process occur. Mahler formulated a series of subphases of this process. In summary, the subphases are:


1)       Differentiation: 4 to 8 or 9 months. During these months, there is the “first tentative” pushing away from “completely passive lap-babyhood”. The 5- to 6-month-old infant gradually begins to creep. During this time, transitional objects develop (a term coined by Winnicott and discussed earlier in this section). The infant soon begins differentiating, with more or less anxiety, the faces of strangers from primary caretakers.



a)        Early: 7 months to about 1 year. This subphase overlaps with differentiation. Infants begin to crawl and stand. They become upset if they end up too far away, frequently paddling back to mother for “emotional refueling”.


b)       Practicing subphase proper: about 12 to 18 months. This subphase begins with walking and ushers in a “love affair with the world”. The children are frequently elated, curi-ous and adventurous. They are delightful to observe but must be carefully watched because they are likely to dash blithely into precarious situations. They tend to be imper-vious to minor falls and other mishaps.


3)       Rapprochement: gradually, from about 15 to 22 months or more, the carefree behavior gives way to anxiety about separa-tion and fear of “object loss”. The toddler is learning that “the world is not his oyster” (Mahler et al., 1975, p. 78). The child alternates between demanding, negativistic, challenging be-havior and seeking love and approval by “wooing” behavior.


4)       “The child on the way to object constancy”: 24 months to 3 years and beyond.


The optimal unfolding of phases depends on the emotional availability of the mothering person. If it is disrupted in the ear-liest months, the result can be the development of an infantile psychosis either because of lack of maternal availability or empathy or because, for constitutional reasons, the infant is un-able to respond to the mothering. Regardless of whether the cause is environmental or constitutional, if the symbiotic mother–in-fant relationship fails to provide safe “anchoring” or discourages hatching, the separation–individuation process cannot proceed normally. Later phases may also be disrupted, for example, by overprotective mothering, which inhibits independence, or be-cause of precocious motor development, which may lead the infant to separate physically from the mother before psychologi-cal readiness for that degree of separation. In addition, Mahler believed that the success or failure of the rapprochement sub-phase lays the foundation for subsequent relatively stable mental health or borderline pathology.


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