In Margaret Mahler's theory of the mother/child relationship, the symbiotic relation is a very early phase of development that follows the phase of normal primary autism and precedes the separation/individualization phase. The symbiotic relation is characterized by an omnipotent sense of the total enmeshing of mother and child, who thus form a "unity of two."
The concept of symbiosis and symbiotic relation came out of Margaret Mahler's observations of the mother-baby relationship, and was later applied to clinical practice. Although a psychological concept, it is also part of the phenomenology of object relations.
Its origins can be found in the description of the "purified ego-pleasure" (1915c) and the "oceanic feeling" of Freud (1930a ), what Margaret Mahler considered as the experience of a baby who has not yet differentiated its identity from that of its object.
The specific features of symbiosis can best be seen against the description of the phase that precedes it as well as those that follow it: as Margaret Mahler points out, symbiosis overlaps the other phases. In the very first phase of life, that of normal primary autism, narcissism is absolutely primary and under the sway of physiological rather than psychological processes. There is a prolongation of the fetal state as Freud described it in 1911; its aim is the homeostatic equilibrium of the organism with the environment (1911b). The shell surrounding this egg forms a protective barrier that is not positively cathected.
With symptoms, the shell begins to crack and—an essential point for Mahler—cathexis passes from the center to the periphery. This marks the beginning of a displacement from the self to the object that is still only obscurely perceived. The object exists in a partial state: that is, it is only apprehended through parts of the body that are experienced as having an object nature. The fully external character of the object is not yet constituted.
From the point of view of energy, while the primary autistic phase is characterized by the existence of an "undifferentiated" energy, differences start to appear in the symbiotic phase between the "good" or "bad" qualities of experience, making of this phase a "quasi-ontogenetic basis for splitting," long before the separation between the ego and the object occurs. This phase starts around the second month of life, and reaches its peak at around four or five months, just at the time when the phase of separation-individuation is filtering into the symbiotic relation. The relation between the inside and the outside of the body emerges progressively from what Margaret Mahler calls a "hallucination" or a "somato-psychic fusion."
Although Margaret Mahler is here describing a state rather than a defense enabling one to reach that state, she thinks that projective mechanisms play a role in maintaining, thanks to a displacement outwards of anything that disrupts or disturbs the symbiotic relation. In her view, failure in the development of the processes of individuation makes the child regress to the stage of symbiotic relation with the mother, thus running the risk of shutting it off in a psychotic disorganization, a "symbiotic psychosis" characterized by a delirious state of undifferentation between the ego and the object. Leaving the symbiotic phase entails the risk of depression.
Even if Margaret Mahler sees it as closer to secondary narcissism (Freud), the concept of symbiosis can constitute a bridge between primary and secondary narcissism. It corresponds to what René Spitz calls the "pre-objectal stage" (1965), which in his view partly covers that of the symbiotic phase. But René Spitz links these processes to those of primary identification with the mother. Donald Winnicott also comes close to the description of the mother-baby symbiosis with his concept of "primary maternal preoccupation," in which the state of maternal hypersensitivity leads the primitive mother-baby couple to live in a particular environment, a prolongation of the uterine environment in which communication between mother and child is immediate and not subject to the vagaries of separation. Wilfred Bion (1970), in his work on bonding, takes up the idea of a so-called "symbiotic" relation being set up between the leader of a group and the group in question. In this case, the encounter is beneficial for both parties, as opposed to the indifference of the commensal bond and the destructivity of the parasitic bond.
Margaret Mahler did not sufficiently develop the link with psychoanalytical clinical practice and in consequence, left to one side the active role played by the processes of identification. Unlike Melanie Klein, who considers the role of anxiety right from the start of life, in the act of introjection-projection on the basis of narcissistic and secondary identifications, Mahler wants to separate the early infantile problematic from the necessary perception of separation—whatever form it might take—between the ego and the object. We can say that the idea of a fundamental "transitionality," as developed by Winnicott, leading from the fetal state to the individuation of the human being, is very influential in Mahler's thinking on the concept of symbiosis.
In spite of the deep truth that it contains, insofar as it presides over all psychological development, in Margaret Mahler and those who place it at the center of their theorizing, this idea tends to evade the question of the suffering of mourning, which presides over any passage towards individuation, or towards "psychological birth," as Mahler calls it.
See also: Framework of the psychoanalytical treatment; Gender identity; Individual; Individuation (analytical psychology); Infantile psychosis; Mahler-Schönberger, Margaret; Maternal; Primary identification; Principle of identity preservation; Purified-pleasure-ego; Relations (commensalism, symbiosis, parasitism); Self (true/false); Self-mutilation in children.
Bion, Wilfred R. (1970). Attention and interpretation. London: Tavistock.
Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.
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Mahler, Margaret S.; Pine, Fred; and Bergman, Anni. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant. New York, Basic Books.
Spitz, René A., and Coblinger, W. G. (1965). The first year of life. A psychoanalytic study of normal and deviant development of object relations. New York: International Universities Press.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1958). Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock.
Gergely, György. (2000). Reapproching Mahler: New perspectives on normal autism, symbiosis, splitting and libidinal object constancy from cognitive developmental theory. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 1197-1228.