Melanie Klein's vision
Britton: dyad or triangle
First there is a dyad
The importance of the Oedipal triangle
The Oedipal illusion: an inner split
The healing disillusion
What might go wrong
O'Shaughnessy: the invisible Oedipus complex
about the so-called Oedipus complex can fill an entire library.
Here, I want to discuss only one recent book:
The Oedipus Complex Today: Clinical Implications,
by Ronald Britton, Michael Feldman & Edna O'Shaughnessy,
London: Karnac Books, 1989.
This book contains a classic article by Melanie Klein from 1945: "The Oedipus Complex in the light of early anxieties". Her angle is
This has great influence on later functioning, for example on the ability to think and to integrate feelings and experience.
In the earliest Oedipal fantasies, the parents do not appear to the child as two different persons. The child creates an inner figure, the combined parent. This is a fantasy figure, but for the child it is reality -- a terrifying reality.
Inevitably, the parents disappoint the child, calling forth frustration, jealousy, hate and the feeling of being let down. In these earliest stages, there is no falling in love with one of the parental figures. The beginning is rather a feeling of hate.
However, the ego of the child is able to defend itself against these feelings by its inborn ability to self-repair. This ability is a favorite phenomenon of Melanie Klein; because in it there is room for love. However, if the child has a depression in early childhood, this ability is not successful at coping with problems. In an emotional aspect, the child remains on the level of an infant and does not develop further. In this case we see regression and fixation.
According to Melanie Klein, very young children have an instinctive knowledge of sexuality, just as animals have at birth. But this instinctive knowledge is also threatening: it calls up jealousy, for example of the father or of a sibling who is born -- or who might come along.
Children defend themselves against these feelings, for example, by splitting the inner parental figures. In the the child's fantasy, there is a good mother and bad mother, or a good and bad father, or a good and a bad combined parental figure. Or, there is only a good mother and a bad father as inner parental figures. The Oedipal phase cannot begin and cannot be resolved.
In the Oedipal phase, the child has to learn to differentiate between genders and generations. The child must accept these differences and must become able to cope with the fears and frustrations inherent to this learning process. This is fundamental for a later identity, and for the ability to think.
A large part of her article recounts the therapy of Richard, a ten-year-old boy whose development apparently was blocked in the infant phase. He intensely loved his mother, but she did not understand it. She thought him troublesome. This was understandable, because Richard could not cope with her absence. Richard avoided his father and brother. He was not able to play with other children or to go to school. Clearly, his mental development was blocked; he showed no interest or activity. He seemed to be fixated in the infant phase.
In therapy, Richard needed first a confirmation of the love for and of his mother. A good mother-child relationship is the basis of any further development. The therapist Melanie Klein was assigned the role of the mother figure. Strengthened by that confirmation, the therapist had to lead him though his depression and fears. Richard had not been breast fed. Because of the war situation he was fearful and physically weak.
Klein gives a careful report of her treatment -- and thus of the working of a child's psyche. Richard was good at drawing. He did a lot of drawings, some of which are shown in the book. Many of his drawings were a kind of map of the family with colors marking the regions ruled by specific family members. The color of the father was always black, threatening, while the color representing the mother was a heavenly light-blue, as Richard explained. The light-blue of the mother was always threatened by the black of the father.
A drawing from an early stage of the treatment features a baby fish who wants to eat, but who flees for a great black squid with scary tentacles. This was the figure of the father, associated by Richard with bombs and war, even with Hitler and with "germs" -- according to Klein an association with "The Germs", the Germans. Richard drew sea battles, in which the father symbols were the bad ones and the mother symbols were the good ones. Here we see the splitting by the child's psyche, mentioned above.
Only gradually, did balance and peace come to the fantasy country. Not until then, the Oedipal phase -- which Richard had nor gone through -- could begin. Oedipal fantasies and feelings appeared - and demanded for an answer.
Here we see one of the drawings from that stage. While drawing, or afterwards, Richard explained his work.
Below in the
see the mother fish with a baby fish who drinks at the breast of the
mother. (A fish's fin is no breast and a fish is no mammal, but
this does not matter for a child's mind: the baby fish is drinking from
Next we see the splitting discussed above: there are two mothers and two fathers. Richard explained that the ship Rodney also represents the mother and that the submarine Sunfish, under Rodney, has drilled its periscope into the mother ship to have a look inside.
Klein interpreted the name Sunfish as being the figure of the Sonfish, the son. She interpreted it as the Oedipal desire of the son for his mother. She was glad to see this desire at long last appearing in Richard's fantasy, next to the figure of the baby fish drinking from the mother. She saw the Oedipal phase no longer suppressed and the fixation at the infant level ended.
The plane is a patrol plane which controls if everything goes well, according to Richard. According to Klein, it represented a second father figure and the superego.
As the therapy progressed, there was more room for nuance and for reality. The father figure became less threatening: he gave "good babies" to the mother figure and to the therapist. Richard liked babies very much, thus this was a good gift from the father. In a therapist's play room, these scenes could be played very well.
Simultaneously, the heavenly-blue mother became more real. She appeared in the drawings as a bird queen with a crown, but also as a bird with a big red bill with which it could also prick. Richard was no longer afraid. His self confidence grew, as did his self-repairing ability. He entered a healthy rivalry with his father. The Oedipal phase had begun and Richard could grow further.
Melanie Klein tells us also about the therapy of Rita, two years old when the therapy started. Rita's development was blocked. She stayed on the infant level. For example, she refused solid food and only drunk from the bottle, panic-stricken if she it was refused. She was extremely anxious. She was unable to play, she only could perform fixed rituals with her dolls or a teddy bear. She had many fears and cried a lot.
Melanie Klein saw in her past history and in the treatment process Oedipal desires coming up very early. The kernel of Klein's report is that the little girl could not cope with these desires, thus she went back to the infant level (regression) and stayed there (fixation). The Oedipal wishes brought her into rivalry with her mother, to whom she was deeply attached. This ambivalence (i.e. this double feeling) were too great for her.
Insofar as the Oedipal desires stayed, she changed them in the reverse: the so-called 'negative solution'. At first, she adored her father, but thereafter she became extremely afraid of him and also -- in a symbolic way -- of dogs. The father, as an inner figure, became the bad father and the severe, cruel superego.
In Rita's fantasy an elephant appeared beside the bed of her teddy bear as a security guard in the therapeutic play room. The elephant had 'to arrest a thief who could climb in through the window' (interpreted as the father figure). The elephant would also prevent the teddy bear leaving her bed to attack her parents (interpreted as her own feared aggressive impulses). The endless tucking in of her bear was one of her rituals and she asked the same for herself. All this related to her fears.
Melanie Klein saw a double split in Rita's inner world: father was bad and mother was good, but there were also two mother figures, a good one and a bad, scary, severe one. Because of this split, Rita was able to play with her dolls, but not -- as she said -- to be their mother. Rita had also a good father as an inner figure and good babies, but she was not able to protect these good figures against the bad and dangerous ones also living within her. Thus, there was no identification with the mother or with the father. In such a case, mental development is blocked.
A key point of Klein's article is that the early fears and depressions blocked the beginning of the Oedipal phase, and thus blocked the development. The little girl first needed treatment of those fears and depression, to make way for the Oedipal feelings and for the answer to them. This process is described in her report of the therapy.
Melanie Klein presents a lot about the self-repairing ability of the young child. She saw this ability working effectively in her therapy again and again. She became impressed by children's self-repairing ability.
In contrasting to Freud, Klein sees the Oedipal wishes as appearing quite early, in the oral phase of the infant, well before the phallic phase of the toddler . This influences the Oedipal process. For example, because the very young child is not able to differentiate between man and woman, it may construct a combined parent as an inner figure.
Klein argues that the feelings of the young child consist not only of love, but also frustration, aggression, fear and guilt. For instance, such a child 'thinks' (like Rita did) that, if the mother stops giving the bottle or the breast, that the mother has abandoned the child. The child is still in the oral phase and has with its first teeth bitten into the breast, so the child feels guilt. Remember the young children's fear of dogs which can bite. So, Klein sees feelings of guilt appearing earlier than Freud did.
Very young children do not differentiate. The little boy loves his mother and his father, as does the little girl. The human infant starts as a bisexual being. In the Oedipal phase the child makes a choice. Nevertheless, very young children know instinctively how a baby is born. Little boys as well as girls have an instinctive, unconscious knowledge of the penis and the vagina and their functions. In their fantasies, these symbols play a role.
Children construct inner figures based on their experiences with their parents (introjection). Based on these inner figures, they communicate with the real parents (projection). This is a continuous, dynamic and fluctuating interaction, in which the good and the bad figures -- and so the good and bad feelings -- continually alternate.
Frustrations and guilt are inevitable. The ego has to be strong enough to cope with them. If the young ego is not able to do this, because of, for example, early depression, regression and fixation appear and the development is blocked. The Oedipal phase cannot begin, and so no resolution obtained. This is disadvantageous, because the child does not learn the necessary differences between gender and generation. The child insufficiently learns to think. It stays on the level of only feeling. It does not integrate perceiving, feeling and thinking.
Such an early depression is always possible, but Klein adds that the child also has a self-repairing ability. This ability helps the child to preserve the good inner figures. It also causes a child to have nice fantasies and to moderate the libido.
The basis of such a recovery process is:
What happens in therapy is no more than that there is room for a good mother- and father figure, maybe represented by the therapist, or by a teddy bear, a plane, an elephant, or whatever the child may fantasize in its play.
Especially, there is acceptation and understanding of whatever the child feels. By that acceptation, the self-repairing ability of the child starts its work.
This can happen at home, if the child perceives the mother and father as good, if they accept and try to understand the child's feelings and if the allow room for feelings. Parental substitutes can do the same.
This self-repairing ability is needed because the child, and only the child her or himself, must make some choices. There is no place for determinism or mechanisms, the child can and must make choices.
Britton begins with underlining the importance of a good relationship with the mother figure, before the Oedipal relationships come up. The start is a dyad (a one-to-one relationship without a third person) with the mother, sometimes followed by a dyad with the combined parent. The child need this foundation to be able to cope with its next discovery that there is a third person, followed by the discovery that this third person has a relationship with the mother, and is even her partner: the discovery that there is a triangle and not a dyad.
The sequence is first, the dyad with the mother, and second, the discovery of the father as the mother's partner. The child does not immediately acknowledge or accept it. The child, boy or girl, develops a relationship with the father. The dyad changes into a V-form. However, the child must still acknowledge and accept the upper line of the triangle without breaking the other lines. Not until then is there a triangle.
The start of
the Oedipal triangle: the child starts at the mother.
The discovery of the father and his relationship with the mother shocks the child. The dyad appears to be an illusion. The disillusion is that there is a triangle -- just as Oedipus must discover: the Oedipal triangle. Each child must discover and accept this. This is crucial for its mental development. If the Oedipal triangle is accepted as a triangle and as a fact, the child has done crucial discoveries which are the necessary tools for further development:
1) A common space has come into being, a triangular space for a common world of experience. This is the foundation for confidence in the human and the world, thus in oneself.
By doing so, the child creates a foundation from which to look critically at itself and its relationships, and thus be able to think about those relationships and thus maintain and improve them.
In any event, the child can grow further, develop its identity, become an individual person, and learn to observe, think, and integrate both abilities.
Britton describes what may go wrong if these crucial discoveries fail.
In this case, the child 'sees', externally, that a relationship exists between the parents, but internally it does not accept this. It is not only a matter of external observation, but also of inner seeing, to see it on a deeper level as the blind seer Tiresias did.
Father and mother become split figures. The child sees them living in the same home, but in its inner self it sees the parents as split figures. The child develops relationships with both, but does not choose which parent it prefers. As a result, both relationships stay split in the inner world. There is no jealousy or rivalry, and thus no Oedipal conflict, thus no resolution of it -- there is also no common room in the triangle, and so no possibilities for development mentioned above.
A double or split personality develops: two egos which exist separate from each other because the connection between the parents (and thus between the two egos) is too dangerous and must be avoided. The result is: a double feeling, double thinking. Relationships become dyads. This might be OK, but there is an inability to allow third persons to share the personal world: the relationships become exclusive and exclude third persons. (I frequently see this in the hetero- and gay world. F.G.)
The same problems hold for the differentiation of the generations: outwardly they are seen, but inwardly they are neither seen nor accepted. The person sees the generations, but not the meaning of that phenomenon. (One can see this in intergenerational relationships, but surely not only there, FG.) An independent style of living of one of the the partners, e.g. a hobby or a job, or children from a former marriage, but also a child born from the dyad, may be a psychological threat. Such relationships become difficult. A therapy is often needed in such cases.
Britton describes some examples of therapy. The patient presents the problem by the phenomenon of the transfer. She or he forbids the therapist to live his or her own life and to have own thoughts, including no thoughts about the patient -- or at least no thoughts other than the patient has. In such cases, the early suppression of jealousy and rivalry was especially harmful to the mental development. Thus, in such cases, the inner cellar of the soul must once be opened.
Let that elephant come out! Nobody will die because of that and there will be no disaster. The furious elephant will become tame and will become a helper.
Britton writes at the end of his article:
"[...] the discovery of the Oedipal triangle is felt as the death of the couple: the nursing couple or the parental couple. In this fantasy the arrival of the notion of a third always murders the dyadic relationship. [...]
I have suggested that it is through mourning for this exclusive relationship that it can be realized that the Oedipal triangle does not spell the death of a relationship, but only the death of an idea of a relationship." [p. 100]
If not resolved, the configuration of the Oedipal figures in the human mind is long-lasting. It influences adults' ways of thinking and their relationships. Feldman shows how the Oedipal configuration repeats itself and is recognizable in the therapeutic relationship. By the way of projection, the therapist encounters the dilemmas that were unsolvable for the patient as a child.
This is not the subject of this essay. Instead, the development of problems is the subject, as is the influence of relationships and ways of thinking. We want to know the best methods to act for parents or other care givers during the Oedipal phase.
We have seen there must be a triangle. Because of this, it is in the child's interests that its parents have a stable and visible relationship and that each parent has a stable base within her or himself. In that case, the parents do not need to deny the child's fantasies, nor is there any need to make them reality. One may understand and accept -- and this is sufficient. The self-repairing ability of the child is invoked and this ability does the work. If the parents do not understand or accept the child's fantasies, the signs of the child's distress become stronger and a fatal vicious circle starts.
Feldman's examples show what might go wrong. As was said above, his concern is which what happens in therapy. Instead, I outline in my own words what might go wrong in every day life. The images and the names of the patterns are mine, but they are based on Feldman's examples.
In each of these cases, the Oedipal triangle is not complete. Thus development -- including the ability to think correctly -- stagnates. Accordingly, one should know to repair the triangle whether in one's life or in a therapy. It is especially important to recognize and accept the upper line of the triangle: the partnership of the parents. This line is absent in the V-form.
The child has a
relationship with both parents, but the parents are not partners --
reality or in the inner configuration of the child's fantasies. The
parents are 'divorced', or the child constructs their relationship as
sterile. The child will develop split ego-figures and split or double
patterns of thinking without integrating them.
The child has a
relationship with both parents, but the latter conflict with each other --
whether in reality or in the inner configuration of the child's
Mother → → !#*x ! ← ← Father
One of the parents makes a
coalition with the child against the other parent. This is frequently seen in divorced families. "Daddy is bad", says
the mother, for example.
The Oedipal conflict will
not be resolved.
A "T" without a vertical line or without any line
This is the worst-case
scenario for the child.
There is a lack of contact and relationship with the parents. There is no
dyad with the mother. There is no basis for an Oedipal triangle, and so no
resolution of it.
Mother ( -----------) Father
Going through the Oedipal phase can be so threatening to a young child, that the child does not want to start it, let alone go through it. This might happen because, for example, of an early-childhood depression.
Years later, when they enter therapy as an adult, they keep the Oedipal complex still invisible, threatening as it still is. This does not mean that the complex is absent. It is still present as a threat against which a defense is made. After all, every child can see with its eyes that it has two parents who have a relationship with each other, but the inner eye may be blocked from seeing this -- just as Oedipus lived for 15 years without seeing the truth.
Leon, 11 years of age, was a boy with extreme fears and, apparently, a blocked development. This was disappointing to the parents: they had wanted another type child. There was another type of child present: a younger brother, born shortly after Leon, a brother who in every aspect better met his parents' expectations than Leon did.
Once in the therapeutic play room of Edna O'Shaughnessy, a room with a lot of toys, Leon could not play, but only sit in the middle of a couch, with two pillows, one at the right, one at the left. These pillows were not allowed to touch one another; they had to stay where they were. This was the first thing Leon inspected when he entered the room. The therapist recognized the V-form in this behavior. Leon saw dots on the floor -- the therapist interpreted this as a lost and fragmented mother figure. On the door, Leon saw a scary pattern -- because of the clearly male symbols of the pattern, the therapist interpreted this as a scary father figure.
Leon had two features of his face and two ways of acting and moving: one like his mother's, the other like his father's. He did not have an own facial expression, nor his own personality, choice, or identity. There 'was no Leon'. There had not been an Oedipal phase: no falling in love with the mother, no rivalry or combat with the father -- there 'was nothing'. Leo had retreated into himself, and in order to avoid the Oedipal phase, his inner self kept both parental figures sterile and strictly separated.
for the therapist, Leon had imagination. This became her point of contact. Leon, for example, imagined himself as a tall man and
other humans as little ones, or he fantasized himself very tiny and living
"in a cottage in mother's body".
She accepted those fantasies, even if she could not understand them.
would have not be told in her book if the therapist had failed to help Leon.
Crucial for her attitude and her way of acting was that she wondered
what lived within Leon's inner self, and that she wanted to understand
it -- in which she succeeded in doing.
It appeared that
Leon's problems had begun shortly after his brother was born --
a brother who in every respect was more successful than Leon.
The mother-like understanding healed for Leon. His ego grew, and not until he was 12 -- better late then never -- he was able to enter into, and to grow through the Oedipal phase. He became boyish with his clothing, his ways of looking and moving, and he started some activities in the therapist's play room. He got his own face, he discovered his own identity -- just as Oedipus had to laboriously discover this after a phase of denial.
This was not easy. In Leon's case, the beginning of the Oedipal phase was to see that the dyad, the symbiosis between mother and child will, in the long term be an illusion -- to see that there is also a father with a real relationship with the mother, i.e., to see the triangle. Leon felt himself left alone and abandoned by his parents, who liked his brother more than him. This feeling, the disillusion after discovering the Oedipal triangle, was a bitter but a healing medicine. I enabled Oedipus, with the help of the seer and his daughter as his guide, to discover his real identity and destiny.
For Leon, it brought the Oedipal situation and, because of that, the awakening of his own self: in Leon's case as a boy with his own identity, different from his parents' or his brother's, and different from what his parents had wanted and expected.
It is not without a reason, that the myth of Oedipus begins with the casting off by his parents, who thereafter lived happily together.
But that story,
the myth, is already told.
There is yet another story to be told.