Splitting of the Object

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The early ego relates to its objects in partial ways; that is, it splits the object. This process creates objects characterized by a particular function (feeding, holding, and so on) or objects that frustrate or gratify ("bad" or "good" objects). The notion of splitting of the object appears for the first time in the article "Personification in the play of children" (Klein, 1929).

Melanie Klein in her earliest observations noted the wide discrepancies of children's feelings toward objects in their attention. She was most impressed, and alarmed, by the strength of children's aggressive and violent feelings toward objects they played with. Sometimes the child's mood changed to aggression, anger, or fear very suddenly. In panics or tantrums this reaction could reach a rapid crescendo. Klein interpreted these hangovers from early infancy as the loss of the reality of the object. The object was no longer a person capable of mixed feelings of love and hate, and therefore of mixed intentions, beneficent or harmful. Instead, it became an object that was wholly loved or wholly hated. She regarded the early ego as not fully able to integrate the impressions of its first object. The breast, for example, is a good feeding object, or it is a frustrating one filled with hate and bad intent toward the infant.

As the ego matures, it becomes capable of recognizing that one and the same object can have good and bad aspects, as well as multiple functions. This perceptual development may, however, be distorted by emotional factors, with the result that the child, in its ways of relating, retains partial objects into childhood and later. Many prejudicial attitudes of race, class, gender, and so on, rely on distorted perceptions that enhance one or another function, or the "good" or "bad" intent, to the exclusion of others. The capacity to integrate objects in accord with reality brings in powerful new emotional problems for the infant, who must harbor both hatred of a frustrating mother with love and gratitude toward her as a feeding mother. This integration leads to the depressive position and characteristic experiences of insecurity, guilt, pining, and reparation (Klein, 1935, 1940).

Melanie Klein derived her notion from Karl Abraham's concept of partial object-love (1924). A splitting of the object is connected with a splitting of the ego; Klein (1946) thought that both must occur together. Freud's last important theoretical contribution (1940e [1938]) concerned a splitting of the ego in connection with gross distortion of perceptions of the loved erotic object.

Anna Freud (1927) and Edward Glover (1945) have doubted that Klein could accurately describe the very early stages of development prior to the infant's acquiring language. Klein, however, believed that her extrapolation from the analysis of young children back to infancy was no different from Freud's extrapolation from the analysis of adults back to childhood.

Another dispute concerned the nature of objects. In classical psychoanalysis, objects are represented in the minds of adults and infants alike. However, Melanie Klein followed Karl Abraham in positing a level where objects are related to as real entities in psychic reality, be they concretely within the ego or outside.

Robert D. Hinshelwood

See also: Envy and gratitude; Internal object; Linking, attacks on; Orality; Paranoid-schizoid position.


Abraham, Karl. (1927). The process of introjection in melancholia: two stages of the oral phase of the libido. In Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey (Trans.). Selected papers of Karl Abraham, M.D. (pp. 442-452). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1924)

Freud, Anna. (1928). Introduction to the technic of child analysis (L. Pierce Clark, Trans.). New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Co. (Original work published 1927)

Freud, Sigmund. (1940e [1938]). Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. SE, 23: 271-278.

Glover, Edward. (1945). Examination of the Klein system of child psychology. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 1, 75-118.

Klein, Melanie. (1929). Personification in the play of children. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 10, 171-182.

. (1935). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 16, 145-174.

. (1936). Weaning. In John Rickman (Ed.), On the bringing up of children. London: Kegan Paul.

. (1940). Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 21, 125-153.

. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 27, 99-110.