Lost Object

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According to Sigmund Freud, the loss of the object is a two-step process whereby the subject is constituted. First, the earliest partial object, the breast, is lost. Then the primary love object, the mother, is likewise lost.

The earliest sexual object is the breast, and the earliest source of satisfaction for the sexual instinct is the encounter between two partial objects, the infant's mouth and the mother's breast. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud explained that the breast becomes a lost object "just at the time, perhaps, when the child is able to form a total idea of the person to whom the organ that is giving him satisfaction belongs" (p. 222). Loss of the object of the oral instinct is thus a precondition of access to the total person as a possible love object. At the same time, however, this loss opens the door to autoeroticism for the infant as the infant assumes a complete body image. The infant, though in a passive position, is active with regard to a part of its own body, and this enables the infant to find a source of satisfaction that is the first substitute for the breast.

Later the lost object becomes the "whole person" in the context of the "Fort!/Da!" game described by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g). Here separation from the object is addressed in two ways: either the child expresses an impulse to master the object by breaking it, casting it aside, or incorporating it in fantasy (and so working it over in the psyche), or the child bypasses the need for the object by regarding it as a lost object beyond the reach of the self. With the recognition of the absence of the object, therefore, the child makes a transition, as a result of working over in the psyche, to a capacity to do without the object.

When the subject does not recognize the object as lost, as in melancholia, the object is incorporated in fantasy, where it maintains a silent existence within the subject. Freud described this process in "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-1917g [1915]). Object loss can also provoke anxiety, mourning, or pain, as Freud outlined in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926d [1925]).

After Freud, a number of psychoanalysts took up the lost object and developed it in their theories. Melanie Klein described internal objects in "Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States" (1935). Jacques Lacan theorized that object a is substituted for the lost object. And Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok related mourning and melancholia to the lost object.

Jacques SÉdat

See also: Object.


Abraham, Nicolas, and Torok, Maria. (1994). The shell and the kernel: Renewals of psychoanalysis (Nicholas T. Rand, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1978)

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1916-1917g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

Klein, Melanie. (1935). Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 21, 125-153.

Lacan, Jacques. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Seuil.

Further Reading

Frankiel, Rita V. (Ed.). (1994). Essential papers on object loss. New York: New York University Press.