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Robbins, M. (1980). Current Controversy in Object Relations Theory as Outgrowth of a Schism Between Klein and Fairbairn. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 61:477-492.

(1980). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 61:477-492

Current Controversy in Object Relations Theory as Outgrowth of a Schism Between Klein and Fairbairn

Michael Robbins


The paper examines the controversy in object relations theory between Kernberg and Kohut from two vantage points, one historical and the other contemporary. By striving to be critically equidistant from both theories we hope to avoid either-or thinking and to address larger questions about the state of object relations theory. Historically the controversy reincarnates a seemingly forgotten schism between Klein and Fairbairn from the preceding psychoanalytic generation. First Klein and now Kernberg has contributed to our understanding of developmentally and pathologically primitive states characterized by absence of integration, incompleteness of self-object differentiation, and prominence of aggression. In so doing they fail to make sufficient distinctions between the neonatal psyche, the more mature psyche, and the neurotic and psychotic psychic apparatuses. First Fairbairn and now Kohut has brought to our attention the importance of the pre-object relationship in early development and primitive psychopathology, but neither has conceptualized meaningful psychic events prior to subjective integration. Their theories, like those of Klein and Kernberg, also condense more and less well differentiated phases of development. For example, Kohut postulates completely separate development of the self and of object relations. The polarization of the current controversy need not force us to choose between theories. We might better aspire to a more comprehensive theory which includes elements from each but which makes clearer distinctions between normal development, pathological development, normal adult functioning and adult psychopathology.

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