Combined Parent Figure

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The combined parent figure is an early and primitive version of Freud's concept of the primal scene. Those phantasies however were believed to supervene at a later stage of development.

In the powerful phantasies of the early Oedipus complex the infant has terrifying experiences of the parents engaged in a particularly violent and dangerous kind of intercourse (Klein, 1928/1975).

Melanie Klein discovered in the panics and night terrors of childhood the persisting of the infant's phantasies of the parents in intercourse. These have a violent tone that matches the violence the infant feels towards the parents at the sense of exclusion.

These phantasies are of pre-genital kinds. For instance the parents may be experienced as mutually feeding each other, which then, in response to the child's hatred, come to be phantasies of the parents devouring each other (Klein, 1929). The imagined mutual destruction is usually extremely worrying for the child, and exclusion may be replaced by a helplessness.

Later in development the infant experiences the parents in more realistic ways, and gains reassurance from the evidence of their survival. At the same time the infant may internalize one or other parent (or perhaps both) to keep them safe. Another primitive response is to mobilize genital feelings of a loving kind, in order to mitigate the violence in himself and perceived in the parental figure. The latter, eroticizing defense may result later in precocious and perverse sexuality.

With the onset of the depressive position, the parents are more realistically appreciated and their relationship can slowly be tolerated as a creative one in its own right. Internalization of a creative parental couple is an important basis of new developments. Tolerating the parents internally in intercourse is an achievement that allows creativity and intellectual curiosity to develop freely.

In Klein's view those later phantasies and investigations which Freud described are emotionally colored by the preceding phantasies of the combined parent figure.

Doubt has been shed on the capacity for infants to have such detailed phantasies and, it is argued, they are to be regarded as subsequent elaborations at a later stage of development when three-person situations can be conceived.

Robert D. Hinshelwood

See also: Breast, good/bad object; Imago; Object, change of/choice of; Oedipus complex, early; Phallic mother; Primal scene.


Britton, Ron, Feldman, Michael, and O'Shaughnessy, Edna. (1989). The Oedipus complex today. London: Karnac Books.

Klein, Melanie. (1975). Early stages of the Oedipus conflict. In The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 1, 186-198). (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 9 (1928), 167-180.)

. (1929). Infantile anxiety situations reflected in a work of art and in the creative impulse. In The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol.1, p. 210-218). London: Hogarth. (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis,10 (1929), 436-443.)

. (1975). The psycho-analysis of children. In The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 2). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1932)