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The term tenderness is derived from the Latin tener, which expresses the idea of a young life filled with freshness. By extension it can apply to a person who is soft, easily wounded morally, and sensitive to altruistic feelings.

Freud distinguished between "the affectionate and the sensual current" (1912d, p. 180): the older of the two is tenderness, which corresponds to the choice of the primary infantile object, which is based on the drive for self-preservation and directed toward those who care for the infant. "These affectionate fixations of the child persist throught childhood, and continually carry along with them erotism, which is consequently diverted from its sexual aims" (p. 181). It is only at puberty that the "powerful sensual current that no longer fails to recognize its aims" (p. 181) is added. The objects of the primary infantile choice are then invested with powerful libidinal forces that conflict with the prohibition against incest. It is by displacement toward a new object with which sexual fulfillment is possible that the current of tenderness and the current of sensuality are reunited in the love relationship.

Tenderness emits from an aim-inhibited sex drive (libido). It is parental, and in particular maternal, tenderness that "rous[es] her child's sexual instinct and prepar[es] for its later intensity" (1905d, p. 223). If it is excessive, it will lead to "a precocious sensuality that will spoil the child" and lead to a predisposition to neurosis.

Using this as his starting point, Sándor Ferenczi distinguished a tenderness stage, or passive object love stage, and a passion stage (1933). Michael Balint, his student and follower, developed the concept of archaic or primary object relation (Primary Love and Psychoanalytic Technique, 1952). The most precocious phase of psychic life "is not narcissistic in nature: it is directed toward objects, but this precocious object relationship is a passive relationshipI must be loved and satisfied without having anything to give in return." "This form of object relation is not associated with any erogenous zone"; mother and child do not have separate identities, their reciprocal instinctual goals are interdependent. This results in active infantile behaviors where the impulse to cling plays a preponderant role.

Paul-Claude Racamier summarized these issues and developed them further. Primary love "is a relation that unites by separating: uniting to the extent that it differentiates and distinguishing to the extent that it reunites; this is the primal paradox of narcissistic seduction" (1995). Tenderness is used to convey this relation: "It is both a mode of cathexis and an affective tone." It is not directly sexual but it is not without sensuality; well-beinga developed form of self-preservationis sought instead of a push toward discharge. "Its special feature is to envelop; its specific site, the skin." Maternal gestures consist of gentle caresses, based on continuity and tact within a climate of "temperate warmth."

During the 1950s, John Bowlby, relying on the direct observation of babies interacting with their mothers and on ethological data, hypothesized the existence of a primary and fundamental need for attachment. This was manifest very early in the newborn's archaic behavior (crying, glances, holding) and became more diversified as the infant grew. This work had considerable impact and led to additional research in the field of precocious interaction. These authors identify the need for attachment as based on physical contact, primarily through the skin. In 1968 Esther Bick proposed the concept of a first psychic skin whose aim was to keep the parts of the personality together "as experienced by them passively." In 1974 Didier Anzieu developed the concept of the "skin ego," "an original parchment that preserved the marks of a 'primal' preverbal writing made of cutaneous traces," which culminated in the idea of the psychic envelope. After birth the skin fulfills functions that were formerly provided in utero by the maternal envelope.

Julian de Ajuriaguerra studied the constitution of the clinging-hugging gesture in children. Initially it is an extension of the arm toward the selected person, then the closing of the arm in an embrace. This gesture, in its complexity, is only fully realized after the age of nine months. Prior to this, one can observe, early in the life of the child, the use of clinging (Moro) and gripping reflexes. Then, around the age of two to three months, the child attempts to open and extend its arms. At around six months, the baby can coordinate the gesture with speech intonation mimicry. At around nine months, an organized pattern of clinging is established, and will develop, around one year of age, into more elaborate forms of related behavior. Hugging, squeezing, caressing, kissing, and other gestures of skin-to-skin contact are the most frequent manifestations of tenderness in mother-child interactions. This "tonic dialogue" forms a secure foundation for emotional development.

RÉgine Prat

See also: Aggressiveness/aggression; Body image; "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child"; Friendship; Latency period; Love; Maternal; Narcissism, primary.


Ajuriaguerra, Julian de, and Casati, Irène. (1985). Ontogenèse des comportements de tendresse: I.Étude de l'embrassement-étreinte, à partir du pattern "tendre les bras." Psychiatrie de l 'enfant, 28 (2), 325-402.

Balint, Michael. (1952). Primary love, and psycho-analytic technique. London: Hogarth.

Bowlby, John. (1969). Attachment and loss (Vol. I). London: Hogarth.

Ferenczi, Sándor. (1949). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child. The language of tenderness and of passion. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 30, 225-230. (Original work published 1933 [1932])

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1912d). On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love. SE, 11: 177-190.

Racamier, Paul-Claude. (1995). L'Inceste et l'Incestuel. Paris: Éditions du Collège de psychanalyse groupale et familiale.