Mahler-Schönberger, Margaret (1897-1985)

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The psychoanalyst Margaret Schönberger Mahler was born in the old Hungarian city of Sopron on May 10, 1897. She died in New York on October 2, 1985.

The Schönbergers were a wealthy and intellectual Jewish family. Mahler's father, Gustav, was a general practitioner to whom she was close; but her relationship with her mother, Eugenia, was distant and conflicted. While still attending the gymnasium, she first encountered psychoanalysis when she met Sándor Ferenczi, who greatly impressed her. She entered medical school at the University of Budapest in 1917, moved to Germany two years later, studied pediatrics and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Jena in 1922. She settled in Vienna where, because she had opted for Austrian citizenship in the wake of World War I, she could practice medicine.

Mahler's interest in psychiatry and psychoanalysis developed as she turned away from the unempathic, sterile practice of pediatrics then common in the Austrian clinic where she worked. She met August Aichhorn and Karl Abraham, attended Anna Freud's child analysis seminar, and in 1926 applied to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute and underwent a training analysis (Stepansky, 1988). Her first analysis, with Helene Deutsch, disappointed her; she subsequently was analyzed by Aichhorn, with whom she had a love affair; her final analysis with Willi Hoffer, from 1930 to 1935, was more successful. She was finally certified as an analyst, after various difficulties, in 1933. In 1936 she married Paul Mahler, Ph.D., a chemist.

With the approach of the Second World Warher mother would die in a concentration campMahler moved briefly to Britain before emigrating to the United States in 1938. The next year, settled in New York, she set up private practice as an analyst and became a member of the New York Psychoanalytic Society. In 1945 she once more entered analysis, with Edith Jacobson.

Mahler assumed various responsibilities at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, affiliated with Columbia University, before becoming professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1950. She also became chair of the child analysis training program at the Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute and, importantly for her observational studies, she directed research at the Master's Children Center in New York.

Mahler's early publications, dating to the late 1940s, concerned tic disorders. Her work with severely ill young children led to prognostic considerations in cases of child psychosis, then a controversial diagnosis. In 1952 she suggested a "symbiotic" syndrome, to be distinguished from autistic psychosis on the basis of "a fixation at, or regression to, a more differentiated stage of personality development" (Mahler, 1968, p. 71). Mahler viewed these disorders as emerging at certain key developmental landmarkswhen the child faces separation from the mother, for example, or when triggered by a specific event. Subsequently there developed a "dramatic disorganization along with loss of functions, such as deterioration of speech, often associated with or ascribed to such events. . . . By the third and fourth year of life, reorganization took place, with a range of psychotic symptoms in the foreground. These include: loss of boundaries of the self ..., extreme reaction to any failure; magic gestures ..., echolalia and echopraxia, psychotic preoccupations with an inanimate object. . . ." (p. 78). Unlike other psychoanalysts at the time, Mahler did not share the popular view that inadequate mothering was responsible for autism.

Mahler's more influential work emerged from her research with normal children that began in the 1960s, when she created a program for directly studying young children in a setting that favored observation of mother-child interaction. Her theory of separation-individuation, which emerged directly from this research, distinguished clearly between psychological and biological birth. "The biological birth of the human infant and the psychological birth of the individual," she wrote, "are not coincident in time. The former is a dramatic, observable, and well-circumscribed event; the latter a slowly unfolding intrapsychic process" (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman, p. 3).

The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, published in 1975, was a mature statement of her theory. Mahler described the separation-individuation process as unfolding from the age of four to five months to thirty-six months of age and beyond. The earliest weeks of infancy constitute a period of psychic gestation that, in turn, is comprised of two stages: the normal autistic phase, during which the baby is centered on proprioceptive and enteroceptive sensation that represents a "model of a closed monadic system, self-sufficient in its hallucinatory wish fulfillment" (Pine, and Bergman, p. 41). It is followed by the symbiotic phase during which infant and mother form a "dual unity within one common boundary" (p. 44).

The separation-individuation process proper, Mahler suggested, begins at about four to five months of age and may be divided into four subphases. Differentiation, from about five months, Mahler viewed as a period of "hatching" of a primitive self from the earlier symbiotic attachment to the mother. In the practicing subphase (ten to twelve until sixteen to eighteen months), the infant becomes a "toddler" with growing motor and cognitive skills who enjoys a "love affair with the world"; during rapprochement (sixteen to eighteen until twenty-four to thirty months) the toddler experiences both separateness and associated crises of dependency. A final, open-ended subphase that Mahler characterized as Toward Object Constancy, occurs as the child achieves an individual and variable measure of autonomy and emotional balance associated with a relatively stable, permanent, and differentiated intrapsychic representation of the mother.

Although recent research in infant and child development tends to emphasize the importance of innate capacities of newborn infants, not only in terms of perception and cognition but also in terms of attachment, Mahler's theory remains an influential touchstone. The overall significance and influence of her work, most notably her concept of separation-individuation in normal psychological development, has been considerable and long-lasting.

Philippe Mazet

Notion developed: Symbiosis/symbiotic relation.

See also: Absence; Adolescent crisis; Anxiety; Autism; Autistic defenses; Blos, Peter; Boundary violations; Developmental disorders; Hungarian School; Identity; Individual; Infant development; Lack of differentiation; New York Psychoanalytic Institute; Object relations theory; Paranoia; Self-mutilation in children; Unconscious fantasy.


Mahler, Margaret. (1949). A psychoanalytic evaluation of tic in psychopathology of children. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 3 (4), 279-310.

. (1958). Problems of identity. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 6, 131-142.

. (1968). On human symbiosis and the vicissitudes of individuation. New York: International Universities Press.

. (1983). The meaning of developmental research of earliest infancy as related to the study separation-individuation. In Frontiers of infant psychiatry (pp. 3-6). New York: Basic Books.

Mahler, Margaret, Pine, Fred, and Bergman, Anni. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York: Basic Books.

Pine, Fred. (2004). Mahler Monday, November 22, 2004's concepts of symbiosis and separation-individuation: Revisited, reevaluated, refined. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 52 (2), 511-533.

Stepansky, Paul. E. (1988). The memoirs of Margaret S. Mahler. New York: The Free Press.