Modern Conflict Theory

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The body of psychoanalytic theory about the mind and its functioning has the sobriquet modern conflict theory for two reasons. First, they indicate its relation to Freud's so-called structural theory and his so-called topographic theory, both of which attribute psycho-neurotic symptom formation to conflict among or between mental systems or structures. In the case of the earlier, topographic theory the systems or structures are called Unconscious, Preconscious, and Conscious. They are abbreviated as Ucs., Pcs., and Cs. In the case of the later, structural theory, they are called id, ego, and superego. The later theory was an extension and modification of the earlier one. Modern conflict theory is an extension and modification of the later, so-called structural theory. Second, these words distinguish it from the many other psychoanalytic theories of psychopathology, such as Kleinian theory, Bionian theory, relational theory, subjectivist theory, and so on.

The brainin particular, the forebrainis the organ of the mind. Mental functioning is one aspect of cerebral functioning. The functional capacity of the brain changes dramatically during the course of the first several years after birth; with respect to its functioning, the brain is a different organ at birth from what it is later on. By the age of three to four years, on average, the brain is capable of acquiring language and of having thoughts that require language to frame them. Among the thoughts that begin to be identifiable at that time are pleasure-seeking wishes of a sexual and aggressive nature. Children yearn for the attention of other persons, particularly their parents (and parent substitutes) and for the stimulating pleasure of physical contact with them. They are jealous of any rival. They intensely resent any evidence of infidelity, lack of interest, or neglect on the part of the persons they yearn for. They desire revenge, whether against a successful rival, the faithless loved one, or both. Being ignorant, they are curious about what adult sexual partners do to each other and with each other and which to do the same themselves. Being relatively small, weak, ignorant, and unintelligent, they feel inferior and humiliated and, in turn, miserable, desperate, and enraged at feeling so. They intensely desire to be grown-up, sexual men and women who are as clever, wise, and sexually successful as the adults around them seem to them to be. In brief, as Freud pointed out, with respect to his psychological side, a child's sexual life is in full flower by the time a child is four or five years old, long before it reaches puberty and the beginning of physical sexual maturity.

However, young children ages three to six years are not independent creatures. They are dependent on their caregiversusually parentsnot only physically, but emotionally as well. Parental love, physical contact, approval, admiration, protection, and all that go with them are of the utmost importance as sources of pleasure before, during, and after that time of life. Contrariwise, anything thatin a child's mindforfeits or threatens to forfeit parental love and approval, anything that a child believes will turn one or both parents against it, or has already done so, becomes a source of intense unpleasure. High on the list of such sources of intense unpleasure are a child's own sexual and aggressive wishes, being that many of these are directed toward his parents, against his parents, or both. In other words, the sexual and aggressive wishes that were briefly outlined are longed for and shunned at the same time, a situation labeled as one of mental or psychic conflict.

In general, the mind functions so as to achieve pleasure in thought and action and to avoid unpleasure. In a situation of mental conflict, an individual's thoughts and actions are such as to achieve the maximum of pleasure with a minimum of unpleasure. Such thoughts and actions are labeled compromise formations. Every child, by the very nature of things, finds itself wishing for things that are intensely pleasurable in fact or fantasy and that are also associated with intense unpleasure. Its sexual and aggressive wishes become associated with intensely unpleasurable ideas of disapproval, rejection, abandonment, retribution, and punishment by its parents. That association, that concatenation of pleasure and unpleasure which is the essence of mental conflict, is an inevitable feature of the mental life of every child.

The compromise formations resulting from conflicts over the sexual and aggressive wishes characteristic of ages three to six years can persist into later childhood and into adult life and give rise to psycho-neurotic symptoms and neurotic character traits, as Freud discovered as early as 1985. What modern conflict theory adds is that they always persist into adult life, that they are ubiquitous in mental life from the time they first appear. Every thought and every action is a compromise formation that is the result, however disguised and distorted, of conflicts over childhood sexual and aggressive wishes. Such compromise formations are not occasional and abnormal. They are ubiquitous. The difference between "normal" and "pathological" in mental life is not the presence or absence of conflict and compromise formation. The difference is a quantitative, not a qualitative, one. If a compromise formation allows for adequate pleasure from the satisfaction of sexual and aggressive wishes of childhood origin, if it does not involve too much unpleasure in the form of anxiety and depressive affect, if its defensive aspect does not result in too much inhibition of function and too much by way of self-punitive and self-destructive trends, it deserves to be called normal. If the reverse is the case, it is properly labeled pathological.

The calamities, real and fantasied, that give rise to unpleasure can be categorized, as Freud did, into abandonment or object loss, loss of love, and genital injury. The last name is usually referred to, inexactly, as castration. Common to all is, usually, the idea that the child's parents did or will cause them. The nature of the unpleasure can be classified as anxiety or depressive affect. The former, if the thought is that the calamity will happen in the near or distant future, and the latter if the thought is that the calamity has already happened, that it is a fact of life.

Changing to the structural theory from the topographic theory substantially altered psychoanalytic practice by introducing the concept that when an analyst is engaged in analyzing a pathological compromise formation, the analysis of the defensive aspect of the compromise formation is an important part of the analytic work, more specifically, that defenses are to be analyzed, not dealt with in some other way. The change to modern conflict theory from the structural theory makes explicit the idea that every thought and action is potential grist for the analytic mill, rather than just the ones judged to be pathological.

Both the topographic and the structural theory include the conclusion that the mind is best understood as composed of separable symptoms, agencies or structures, each of which is defined according to its functions. As this conclusion appears in the structural theory, the ego is the part of the mind that is attached to and deals with external reality while the id is equally attached to pleasure-seeking sexual and aggressive wishes. Among analysts who accept modern conflict theory as valid there are some who accept the validity of the idea that the mind is composed of separable, functionally different agencies, and some who consider that idea is invalid and should be discarded.

Charles Brenner


Brenner, Charles. (1982). The mind in conflict. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

. (2002). Conflict, compromise formation, and structural theory. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 71, 397-417.

Freud, Anna. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1933). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

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Modern Conflict Theory

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Modern Conflict Theory