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Between Freud and Bowlby: Ronald Fairbairn's Enduring Legacy

Fairbairn united classical psychoanalysis with modern attachment theory.

Key points

  • Ronald Fairbairn is the father of object relations theory.
  • Fairbairn's work bridged the theoretical divide between Freud's Oedipal framework and Bowlby's attachment theory.
  • A new collection of papers offers new insights into the relationship between object relations theory and psychic organization.

Who Is Ronald Fairbairn?

Ronald Fairbairn may be the most important psychoanalyst you’ve never heard of. The recent re-publication of a book by this brilliant Scottish psychoanalyst prompted me to reflect upon how fundamental his contribution has been to the realm of analytic thinking.

Fairbairn only published one book during his lifetime: Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality (1952). It essentially invented the field of object relations psychoanalysis, a psychoanalytic specialty focusing on the interplay between early childhood relationships and the developing psyche, or sense of self. His seminal ideas developed in part through a long-distance dialogue with the early 20th Century psychoanalyst Melonie Klein (1882-1960). Through their publications, one reads a kind of respectful back-and-forth; Fairbairn’s thinking was philosophically and logically more rigorous than Klein’s, whose approach was more clinically immersed. Both analysts are the forebearers of the relational and interpersonal schools of thought that followed. (We might say that they were the father and mother of object relations theory.)

It was Fairbairn’s original formulation, way back in 1952, that a child’s mind forms by taking in their experiences with primary figures. (He called them “mothers” back then; now we would call them “parents.”) He developed a schematic model of mind made up of configurations of self-and-object under the sway of persecuting, need-exciting, or satisfying emotions; he showed that the mind was made up not just of objects in relation to part of the self, but of internal object relations in dynamic relation to each other. In practice, each person uses these internal relational dynamics to predict the behavior of others, calibrate threat response, and define their place in the world.

For those even passingly familiar with the work of someone who is arguably the father of modern psychoanalytic theory, this may have a ring of Freud to it. To clarify this distinction: Fairbairn suggested that we replace Freud’s structural hypothesis of id, ego, and superego with a model of the mind based on object relations constellations. This was revolutionary; it moved the focus from the instincts, formulated by Freud, to the interplay between the individual and what the modern zeitgeist might refer to as one’s “lived experiences.” Many modern schools of thought operate from the premise that our relationships—with people, with objects, and with ideas—shape us from our first moments. I believe that Fairbairn was the first to make this connection in a solid and forthright way.

Fairbairn’s Posthumous Publications

Photo used with editor's permission.
Fairbairn's second publication: "From instinct to self: Selected papers of W.R.D. Fairbairn"
Source: Photo used with editor's permission.

Fairbairn’s second book, From Instinct to Self: Selected Papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn, Volume 1, is one I had the honor of editing, 25 years ago, with Fairbairn’s daughter, Ellinor Fairbairn Birtles. We gathered together four foundational papers published after his book: ones that had become less available but were nonetheless foundational to the psychoanalytic project. What this second collection of his writings adds is extremely significant.

The first paper in the book, “The Nature of Hysterical States,” re-examines hysterical psychic organization that leads to the development of those conditions through which Freud first discovered psychoanalysis, which Fairbairn now viewed through a lens of object relations. He concludes that hysterical neuroses and personality are formed as much in the crucible of early childhood as they are in oedipal experience when internal object relations sets are reorganized. He thereby posits a new idea about the continuity of development.

The second paper we included is called: “The Schreber Case.” This work re-examined Freud’s landmark formulation on psychosis, linking it to a more specific object relations formulation. Fairbairn noted here that Freud had actually begun this trend when he saw that what Schreber wanted was acceptance by a father, even an evil father.

The third essay, “Psychoanalysis and Mental Health,” documents Fairbairn’s appreciation of Freud’s founding genius. Here he summarizes the reasons that psychoanalysis is crucial to the larger field of mental health: it supports the importance of a child’s home conditions; documents the importance of emotional deprivation and the need of children for parents’ attention; and explains the need to safeguard children against situations calculated to promote jealousy or witnessing adult sexual intimacies.

The fourth essay, “On the Nature and Aims of Psychoanalytical Treatment”, is the only paper Fairbairn wrote on why psychoanalysis works. Fairbairn asserts that what is most important in psychoanalytical treatment is not any single mechanism — like genetic or transference interpretation — but rather the relationship between patient and practitioner. Without the foundation of the relationship, none of the other factors that have been proposed as central can be therapeutic. This is one of the earliest formulations in the literature on the foundation of our work in the relationship itself, presaging ideas about the therapeutic alliance or the “real relationship” as crucial to all psychotherapeutic work.

Finally, the last short contribution in the book is a two-page set of bullet points that capture all of Fairbairn’s object relations theory, neatly captured in telegraphic, logical summary form: a wonderful reference for anyone studying the heart of object relations theory.

Ronald Fairbairn was a giant in the world of psychoanalysis: one upon whose shoulders many others stood. His work was crucial to the British Independent Analysts, including Winnicott and Guntrip, and to Enrique Pichon Rivière of Argentina, who developed the concept of the link that operates in development in both conscious and unconscious realms. For instance, Fairbairn laid the groundwork for Bowlby’s development of attachment theory (as Bowlby himself told me in 1972) and was well known to the pioneers of the Relational School. Long overshadowed by the works of Klein, Bion, Bowlby, and Winnicott, Fairbairn is finally receiving acknowledgment for the number of fundamental ideas he promulgated — and for the brilliant byproducts of this founding genius.


Fairbairn, William Ronald Dodds (1952). Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7100-1361-2.

Scharff, D. E., & Birtles, E. F. (1994). From instinct to self: Selected papers of W.R.D. Fairbairn. Jason Aronson. Available at “” for free download.

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