The concept of the splitting of the object was elaborated by Melanie Klein. This is a defense mechanism deployed by the ego against anxieties concerning the destructiveness of the death drive, and which is directed at maintaining the separation between a good object and a bad object to safeguard the security and integrity of the ego.
The object that is split in this way is the internal object; Klein developed this concept of internal object on the basis of the concept of introjection. In fact, according to Freud, the ego introjects external objects that are sources of pleasure, and expels outside of itself that which causes unpleasure. For Melanie Klein, splitting, introjection, and projection constitute the first defense mechanisms. In his "phantasies," the child introjects parts of his parents' bodies (the breast, the penis, and so on), and the parents are split into gratifying good objects and frustrating bad objects.
The infant's first relationship is a relationship to part-objects, principally to the mother's breast, which is split into the ideal breast and the persecuting breast. In this relationship, the ego projects the death drive outwards and introjects an ideal object that is the product of the projection of the life drive. Historically speaking, Melanie Klein described the depressive position first, but it was the elaboration of the concept of the paranoid-schizoid position that then enabled her to study the mechanism of projective identification, as the result of primitive projections. Projective identification consists in the identification of the object with the part of the self that has been projected, and it concerns both the good and the bad parts of the self and the object. The paranoid-schizoid position, which is characterized by the fragmentation of the ego and the splitting of the object, is followed by the depressive position, in which the ego is integrated but is in the grip of the conflict between opposed drives; repression then gradually takes over from splitting, and projective anxiety gives way to guilt. In the paranoid-schizoid position, splitting therefore relates to part-objects, whereas in the ensuing depressive position it relates to a total object.
The interest in the internal object and its splitting has led Kleinian analysts to develop an entire conceptual apparatus concerning the genesis, evolution, and position of the object in the psychic apparatus and in the dynamics of the object relationship. Also deserving mention here are Wilfred Bion's beta-elements and alpha-elements and "K" and "O," Frances Tustin's sensation-objects and Donald Winnicott's transitional object, as well as the role of dimensionality in Donald Meltzer's work.
In clinical practice, these concepts provide a better understanding of the way in which the line of the splitting protects and maintains the idealized object, by separating it from the frustrating object that bears the hallmark of castration (particularly in perverse, depressive, or obsessional neurotic structures).
The concept of the splitting of the object, based on the concept of the splitting of the ego introduced by Freud, has made it possible to focus attention on the importance of the internal object and of the phantasy, and has opened up some productive perspectives concerning intersubjectivity.
See also: Object; Object, change of/choice of; Splitting; Splitting of the object.
Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.
Klein, Melanie. (1948). Contributions to psychoanalysis. London, Hogarth, 1967.
——. (1952). The mutual influences in the development of ego and id. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 7, 51-53.
Grotstein, James. (1981). Splitting and projective identification. New York: Aronson.