Splitting, Vertical and Horizontal

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The psyche is often depicted metaphorically as an image, and this image can be further represented as whole or split. A horizontal splitting is used to bring out a division between upper and lower sectors. A vertical splitting suggests a separation of sectors that lie side by side. There is a psychoanalytic tradition that suggests that the first splitting (horizontal) represents repression, and the second (vertical) can be considered as a representation of denial.

A horizontal splitting, the barrier of repression, separates unconscious material from preconscious contents, while a vertical splitting basically partitions material that is more or less accessible to consciousness. While many are familiar with Sigmund Freud's ideas about repression and the forces that maintain it, the idea of vertical splitting is rather less well known. According to Heinz Kohut (1971), it is characterized by the existence, side by side, of attitudes operating on different levelsdifferent structures of goals, aims, and moral and aesthetic values. Generally speaking, one side of this parallel existence is judged to be more in accord with reality, while the other can be judged infantile or turned towards immediate gratification.

One of the ways of considering these parallel attitudes of the personality consists in saying that the realist attitude is better structured and/or more neutralized, while the infantile attitude is relatively unstructured and/or not neutralized. This less structured sector is sometimes involved in a fantasy, but with even less structure it can issue in manifest action. Such is the case with behavioral disturbances such as addictions, delinquency, and perversions. With horizontal splitting, the infantile and unstructured material is kept at bay. With vertical splitting, it succeeds in expressing itself. Pathological behavior is the manifestation of this split vertical sector.

Arnold Goldberg

See also: Sexualization; Splits in psychoanalysis.


Goldberg, Arnold. (1995). The problem of perversion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kohut, Heinz. (1971). The analysis of the self. New York: International Universities Press.