Clinical Implications of Separation-Individuation Theory in Brief

Excerpted and adapted from M. Hossein Etezady, M.D., An intergenerational legacy: a discussion of Anni Bergman's paper, to be published in S. Akhtar, ed. Affect Development and Regulation During Separation-Individuation. In Press.

Mahler's theory of separation-individuation has made an invaluable contribution to the understanding of the first three years of life (pre-oedipal period) and its effects on later development. Separation-individuation theory makes possible the elaboration of the intra-psychic and interpersonal course of events that result in the emergence of the separate individual.

If we consider separation-individuation in all aspects of its clinical and developmental ramifications, we appreciate the wide scope of its implications, not only in clarifying mother-child interactions and object relations, but also in its intra-psychic dimensions. It provides illuminating clarity in explicating the realm of affective experience as a determining ingredient of psychic organization, structure formation, source of motivation and signaling function that can be traced as a developmental line throughout the sub-phases of separation-individuation.

Separation-individuation theory views the intra-psychic from an inter-personal perspective while elaborating the inter-personal in intra-psychic terms. As such it deals with the inter-subjective approach to development and therapeutic process. It is couched in ego-psychological terms and accommodates our classical theories. It is compatible with and complementary to theories of attachment and self-psychology, and provides a conceptual scaffolding for developmental phenomena discovered or elaborated in cognitive or general psychology.

Using separation-individuation as a frame of reference can be an invaluable asset in dealing with our more disturbed patients as well as the normal neurotic and highly-functioning individuals in analytic treatment.

Understanding Separation-Individuation:

While the physical separation from maternal corporal engulfment takes place at birth, the psychological separation is not possible before the infant has been able to establish sufficient capacity for autonomy, self-reflection and self-reliance. This developmental phase unfolds over the first two years of the infant's normal development -- first the infant's perceptions and coenesthenic perceptions are grouped, cross-referenced, and organized in preliminary patterns in response to mother's intuitive reactions. They coalesce to form a basic core and, in time, an affective core. The infant's global awareness is initially inner-directed and centered around proprioceptive sensations. Mother's perceptive reactions and finely-tuned and timed responses and her intuitive interpretation of the infant's internal states serve to establish an expanding dialogue. This strengthens her libidinal investment as her understanding of her infant nurtures their growing bond. As a consequence of the expansion of this dialogue, the cathexis of libidinal energies are drawn from the core to the periphery. The sense organs and the erotogenous zones of the body surface form a stimulating and searching source of gratification that depend on the libidinal availability of the mother.

In the earliest phase of development, because the boundaries of the self and its mental representations have not yet been adequately elaborated, the infant perceives the mother as a part of his self-experience. There is an illusion of dual unity. Distinct boundaries between the internal and external, the self and the other, or the subject versus the object have not been established. Cognitive appreciation of events and states is not yet possible except in fragments of uni-modal perception which combine and coalesce only gradually and over a relatively long period of time.

Mahler refers to this phase as the symbiotic phase which, at its peak, gives way to separation-individuation and its sub-phases. The symbiotic phase serves as a platform upon which the child's internal resources and capacities are assembled, coordinated, repeatedly tested and finely-tuned within a stable and secure orbit before the outer reaches of separation and autonomy can be sampled. It is within this symbiotic orbit that the infant establishes the foundation of confident expectation and the beginnings of his own individual resources that have evolved as byproducts of experiencing mastery.

Throughout this period, it is the mother's libidinal availability and investment in her infant that gives life, sustenance and motivational impetus to the child's strides within this expanding universe. When mother's libidinal responsiveness and pleasure in being with the baby is amiss, enduring patterns of pathological development run roots and mar the basic core, distorting the subsequent development of the sense of optimism and confident expectation that constitute the foundations of narcissistic stability and cohesion.

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