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Splitting is a form of dissociation that results from a conflict that can affect the ego (splitting of the ego) or its objects (splitting of the object). It is a very general intrapsychic process to the extent that it also forms the basis of the capacity in the psychic apparatus for dividing itself into systems (cf. first topography: unconscious, preconscious, conscious) and into agencies (cf. second topography: id, ego, superego).

The term "splitting" has some long-established uses in psychiatry and goes back to the general concept of a capacity for psychic splitting in the human being. These usages are precursors of the concept of splitting as defined by Freud. They are found in the nineteenth century in relation to hysteria and hypnosis (splitting of the personality, multiple personalities, dissociation) and in Pierre Janet's work, in which the concept of a deficiency of psychological synthesis plays an important role. Freud and Breuer return to the concept of splitting in relation to "splitting of consciousness" and from 1894 ("The Psycho-Neuroses of Defence"), Freud provides a causality for this process: "For these patients whom I analysed had enjoyed good mental health until the moment at which an occurrence of incompatibility took place in their ideational life that is to say, until their ego was faced with such an experience, an idea or a feeling which aroused such a distressing affect that the subject decided to forget about it because he had no confidence in his power to resolve the contradiction between that incompatible idea and his ego by means of thought-activity" (1894a, p. 47).

However, the splitting mentioned here goes back to neurotic repression. Now, Freud, writes, "There is, however, a much more energetic and successful kind of defence. Here, the ego rejects the incompatible idea together with its affect and behaves as if the idea had never occurred to the ego at all" (1894a, p. 58). This describes another form of splitting, that which Jacques Lacan later translates as foreclosure (forclusionVerwerfung ), which is characteristic of the psychoses and results in the foreclosed element returning in the real in the form of a hallucination. With the concept of "denial of reality," Freud introduces another form of splitting that demonstrates the proximity of the mechanisms of perversion to psychotic mechanisms without actually conflating them, as is evident from the creation of a substitute for the absent reality (the female penis) that occurs in the fetish, which differs from a hallucination.

The concept of splitting does not only concern this possibility of dissociation from reality or internal rift in the ego, but also relates to the object of the drive. Based on Freud's hypotheses concerning the life drive and the death drive, Melanie Klein demonstrated the force with which the latter operates in generating infantile anxiety when confronted with frustration. The splitting between a "loved good breast" and a "hated bad breast" therefore constitutes a way of simultaneously preserving a good object and constructing a bad object as the receptacle of the destructive drives. This situation corresponds to what the author terms the paranoid-schizoid phase. The support that the ego draws from the good object and the process of repairing the destroyed object subsequently allow this splitting to be partly overcome. However, the splitting of the object is inextricable from a splitting of the ego into a "good" and a "bad" ego, according to the introjection of the corresponding split objects. Splitting can prove difficult to overcome when it is established between a very bad object and an idealized object. The entire pathology of idealization opens up here with its multiple clinical facets.

Melanie Klein's successors, Wilfred Bion and Donald Winnicott, amplified and deepened the concept of splitting. For Bion, splitting in the form of dissociation precedes the work of elaboration in loss. For Winnicott, who takes up Helene Deutsch's concept of "false self," a distortion in the initial relationship between the mother-environment and the baby creates a false self that protects the true self but also isolates it from contact with reality. For Winnicott, splitting can also take the form of dissociation or disintegration as responses to being confronted with a psychotic fear of disintegration.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Alcoholism; Alterations of the ego; Amnesia; Castration complex; Defense mechanisms; Ego; False self; Fetishism; Negative, work of; Perversion; Projective identification; "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes"; Splitting of the ego; Splitting of the object; "Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence, The"; Splitting (vertical and horizontal); Transsexualism.


Bion, Wilfred. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann.

Klein, Melanie. (1935). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 16, 145-174. Reprinted 1975 in The writings of Melanie Klein, vol. 1, 262-289.

. (1952). The mutual influences in the development of ego and id. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 7, 51-53.

Lacan, Jacques. (1966). Commentaires sur la Verwerfung. In Écrits. Paris: Le Seuil. (Original work published 1956)

Winnicott, Donald W. (1953 [1951]). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. A study of the first not-me possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, 89-97. Additional material was added to the paper in Playing and reality. London: Tavistock, 1971: 1-30.

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