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Margaret Mahler (1897–1986) represents a group of ego psychologists whose interest focuses on the development of psychic structures, as outlined in Sigmund Freud's ([1923] 1990) structural theory, the id, ego, and superego. Mahler's interest in the developing ego centered on its development within the context of object relationships. Object relations refers to how experience with another comes to be represented in the mind. Mahler shifted the focus away from the Freudian emphasis on the gratification of instincts or biological needs as the basis for mental life, to an emphasis on how interpersonal relationships become internalized within the ego or self.

As a former pediatrician and child analyst, Mahler sought, through the study of normal development, to understand how inner representations of the self and other develop within the context of interpersonal interactions between the caregiver and child, resulting in an integrated sense of self. Separation-individuation is the name she gave to the process by which internal maps of the self and of others are formed. These experiential maps, or internal representations, are built up through interactions with caregivers during the period spanning birth to three years of age, and consist of both positive and negative aspects of experience within the relationship. According to Mahler, it is the ability to integrate frustrating and pleasurable aspects of experience with another person that leads to a stable sense of self that can tolerate fluctuating emotional states within the self and with others. The inability to integrate these aspects of experience can lead to psychopathology (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975).

Mahler and her research team studied caregivers and their children, in a naturalistic setting, from birth through three years of age and noted age-specific, regularly occurring behaviors that marked changes in the child's behavior in relationship to the caregiver and to the outside world. Mahler divides the early forerunners of the separation-individuation process into two phases, the autistic state and the symbiotic state. The separation-individuation process proper is broken down into four sub-phases: differentiation, practicing, rapprochement, and on the road to object constancy. Separation refers to the child's emergence from a symbiotic state with the caregiver, while individuation consists of individual achievements and characteristics that define identity.

Precursors to Differentiation

Normal autism. During the autistic stage—the first four weeks of life—the infant spends more time in sleeplike states than in states of arousal (Mahler 1967). The infant is thought to operate in a closed system, not distinguishing inner from outer, and to be protected by a stimulus barrier, a hypothesized protective shield against overwhelming stimulation. Experience centers on internal stimuli such as hunger, elimination, and bodily comforts. Infant life is concentrated on the satisfaction of needs and on the reduction of unpleasant tensions that relate to these internal states. The caregiver's gratification of the baby's needs is central, and it is out of this experience of gratification that the infant begins to differentiate "good" pleasurable experiences and "bad" painful experiences (Mahler 1967). At this stage feelings are islands of experience not yet held together by a sense of self or other.

Attachment, an intense emotional bond with the mother, begins to consolidate experience for the infant. The ability to attach to the caregiver and others is essential for emotional health. The absence of attachment-seeking behaviors such as smiling, reaching out, and anticipatory nursing postures are felt to be the result of constitutional or basic cognitive defects that interfere with the infant's ability to organize experience. Clinically, the absence of these behaviors can also be tied to profound environmental stress (Mahler 1952; Rutter 1971). Children who are unable to form attachments, or whose attachments have been ruptured though separations or abuse, are withdrawn and suffer from depression (Spitz 1965).

Clinical issues include panic states arising over loss of the self, or, alternatively, a wish to deny any differences between self and other (Pine 1979). The failure to establish an attachment is often seen in psychopathic characters where there is simultaneously an inability to keep rules, a lack of empathy for others, and a craving for affection, along with an inability to form lasting relationships (Bowlby 1944).

Normal symbiosis. The normal symbiotic stage, starting in the third to fourth week, results from maturation of sensory processes. The infant shows increased awareness of the outside world, as indicated by states of alert inactivity. During this period there is an increased responsiveness to the caregiver, who acts as an auxiliary ego in regulating internal states. Memory traces of the caretaker's ministrations help the infant become aware of the differences between inside and outside. Mutual cueing, the way in which the caretaker selectively responds to the infant's needs, sets up a process of interpersonal relating that leads to the development of a core concept of the self (Mahler and Furer 1963). The social smile is the developmental milestone of this period, indicating the infant's attachment to its caregiver.

Clinically, disturbances in ongoing consistent care can lead to deficits in the organization of the self. In the absence of this care, infants may precociously develop their own resources defensively, developing a false self (Winnicott 1953). Attachment is affected when there is difficulty in establishing self-object differentiation. Individuals with these issues lack a core sense of self and manifest a defensive detachment to others, low self-esteem, and a grandiose self structure, that is, a pseudo self-sufficiency to compensate for a lack of connection with another (Horner 1984).

The First Subphase: Differentiation

The first stage of differentiation is called hatching and spans four to ten months of age. Hatching, or psychological birth, is the phase in which the infant differentiates out of the symbiotic unit (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975). It is characterized by a more alert state, with distinct periods of wakefulness. At about six months the infant begins to engage in exploratory behaviors of the caregiver, a process Mahler describes as customs inspection (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975). This consists of visual and tactile exploration of the caregiver's face and body. It is the beginning of peek-a-boo games and of physical separation through crawling away, venturing back, and playing nearby. Throughout this process infants engage in a visual checking back, which serves the developmental function of discriminating the familiar from the unfamiliar (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975). This is seen in stranger anxiety, the developmental landmark of this period. The transitional object, a soft blanket or other object that the infant chooses for comfort in the absence of the caretaker, becomes important at this period of separation from the caregiver since it represents the comforting functions of the caretaker that the infant can now use on its own terms (Winnicott, 1953). It is important that the mother be available to the infant during these early attempts at separation so that the infant can build up a confident expectation and basic trust in the caregiver and in the outside world (Benedek 1938; Erikson 1950).

Clinically, issues arising from this period involve borderline phenomena, which are characterized by an unstable sense of self, unstable relationships with others, and chaotic, fluctuating internal states, with chronic feelings of emptiness. There is intense separation anxiety, the inability to be alone, and the constant concern about the availability of others to help manage intense internal tension (Horner 1984).

The Second Subphase: Practicing

The practicing subphase occurs from about six to ten months and up to eighteen months of age. It represents a shift to more autonomous functioning and is divided into two parts, early practicing and practicing proper (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975). In the early practicing subphase, which overlaps differentiation, the infant is able to move away from the caretaker by crawling, climbing, and pulling itself up and holding on to a supporting object. During its explorations, the infant checks back to the caregiver to emotionally refuel, using the caretaker as a secure base—in other words, is reassured about the availability of the caretaker (Bowlby 1958). During practicing proper, the infant is upright and walking, seemingly impervious to bumps and falls. This period has been called the toddler's love affair with the world, in that a sense of omnipotence prevails with regard to newfound skills and functioning (Greenacre 1957). Games reflect a growing awareness of separateness and also the need to be reassured of the caregiver's availability for support, seen in games in which the infant runs away only to be quickly caught. Mahler (1972) noted that children at this age often show a preoccupation, an attempt to create a mental image of their caregivers when they are not available. The major shifts in cognition from sensorimotor to representational thought, and the beginnings of language and symbolic play, add to the child's increased autonomy in interacting with the outside world (Piaget [1936] 1992). The achievement of this period is a healthy sense of narcissism and a beginning sense of self-esteem, fueled by pleasure in one's own abilities and autonomous functioning.

Clinical issues arising from this level of development often reflect issues related to premature object loss. Instead of taking pleasure and delight in their newfoundskills, children worry over the loss of the primary object whose care they need. In narcissistic phenomena, there are disturbances in the ability to maintain self-esteem. Individuals often have an inordinate need for outside validation and admiration of their abilities to reassure themselves of their value. They often create an inflated sense of importance—of being "special"—and feel grandiose as a defense against not feeling valued. These feelings also defensively ward off the need for others, while simultaneously craving constant admiration and reassurance from them. Narcissistic individuals feel entitled, yet dependent on others, with whom they often demonstrate a lack of empathy and concern. Disappointment in others leads to rage.

Phase Three: Rapprochement

The period of rapprochement spans the ages of approximately fifteen to twenty-four months and is characterized behaviorally by an active approach back to the caregiver. Children begin to realize the limits of their omnipotence and have a new awareness of their separateness and the separateness of the caregiver. Increases in cognition and motor development lead to ambitendency—shadowing and darting away from the caretaker. These behaviors reflect the child's simultaneous need for autonomy and need for support. An increase in aggression is seen in behaviors such as pushing away while whining and clinging. These behaviors represent the struggle to reconcile the good and bad aspects of the self and the other, with the need of the other. Toilet training often begins at this stage, leading to further struggles with autonomy and control. The verbal no, the developmental milestone of this phase, acts as a metaphor for the issues of autonomy that characterize this stage (Erikson 1950).

Clinically, the rapprochement period is often cited in conjunction with borderline phenomena, which are characterized by unstable inner states, unstable relationships, and a fragile sense of self. In borderline phenomena there are feelings of loss of support and approval of the other, as well as aggression and anger which arise out of intense feelings of vulnerability and dependency. The major defenses employed in borderline phenomena are those of splitting and projection. Splitting keeps the "good" and loved aspects of the other separate from the "bad" and hated aspects of the other. Projection is used to rid oneself of felt unwanted "bad" aspects of the self by attributing those unwanted parts to another. Internally, because of the lack of integration of the good and bad internal representations of the self and other, individuals with this defensive structure are subject to fluctuating internal states, feelings of disorganization, and low self-esteem.

Phase Four: Consolidation of Individuality, or on the Road to Object Constancy

This period spans the ages of twenty-four to thirty-six months and involves all aspects of previous stages, in particular the trust and confidence of the symbiotic phase (Mahler 1972). There are advances in cognition with representational thought and the use of language. Children have an inner picture of the caretaker and their relationship with the caretaker, which has formed has formed as a result of the soothing, gratifying, and organizing functions that the caretaker provides (Tolpin 1971). Internalization is the process of recovering what has been lost in the actual relationship with the mother, so that the toddlers carry around an internal picture of a gratifying mother that is now part of their internal structure (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975). The developmental achievement is an individual identity with stable internal representations of self and others. This achievement is a prerequisite for the capacity to form one-to-one relationships where separation is not abandonment and closeness does not represent engulfment.

The clinical issues seen in this stage of developmental have to do with ambivalence toward caretakers and their functions, and with how needs have been met or not met. At times there can be depression associated with threatened object loss and the sense that important needs may never be met (Horner 1984).


The role of the father changes during the different phases of separation-individuation.

In the early stages of homeostasis he provides a complement to the mother in understanding the infant's behavior patterns and, in his help with soothing and regulating behaviors, offers an added stimulus to the baby's experience. During the symbiotic period, the father is available as another love object, adding depth to new sets of experience. In the differentiation phase, the father engages his infant in interactive ways that complement the mother's more comforting functions. During practicing, fathers are the significant other that help modulate aggression and offer additional security as a base to return to in the toddler's forays out and back. Fathers also provide another gender for comparison and identification during the period where gender differences are being discovered. The availability of the father during rapprochement helps the child organize and modulate feelings of frustration and aggression, adding to emotional and cognitive growth. By setting limits while supporting autonomous strivings, fathers help children tolerate and integrate ambivalent feeling states (Greenspan 1982). In general, fathers' play and interaction with their children tends to be more active and exciting as compared with mother's soothing. When infant care is divided between both parents, comforting and active interactions may be associated with both. The experience of personality differences with both caregivers gives the infant varied experiences, allowing them a fuller expression of emotions and participation with others (Burlingham 1973).

Critique of Mahler's Theory

Critiques of Mahler's theory of separationindividuation come from the fields of infant and attachment research (Lyons-Ruth 1991; Stern 1985). Infant research demonstrates that infants are prewired for relatedness from birth and do not experience an autistic or symbiotic phase. From birth infants experience a subjective sense of self and other from which experience is organized, structured, and restructured according to cognitive and affective developmental levels (Stern 1985). Attachment theorists also cast doubt upon the validity of the symbiotic phase, pointing to infants' readiness to interact from birth with evolutionary behaviors such as crying, sucking, and smiling that elicit the caregiver's attention and care. (Bowlby 1969). There are points of convergence between Mahler and attachment theorists. The concepts of internal working models and self-other representations both demonstrate how early relationships become internalized and form expectations of relationships in general (Main, Kaplan, Cassidy 1985). Similarly, both Mahler's concept of emotional refueling and Bowlby's notion of the secure base underscore the need for the caregiver's availability during exploratory behavior. They come to different conclusions, however, regarding behaviors seen from nine to eighteen months. Mahler sees the practicing and rapprochement phases as characterized by active separations, with ambivalence toward reunions with the caregiver as a threat to emerging autonomy. Attachment theorists, on the other hand, see this period as an increase in the awareness of and interest in the caregiver's availability during exploratory behaviors. Infants seek proximity to caregivers, as opposed to the clinging, ambivalence, and aggression described by Mahler. To attachment theorists these behaviors represent problematic interactions between infant and caregiver and characterize problems in the quality of the attachment (Lyons-Ruth 1991; Tyson and Tyson 1990).

Cross-Cultural Issues

Cross-cultural studies attest to the normality and universality of attachment (van IJzendoorn and Sagi 1999). However, there are variations within and across cultures in how attachment behaviors are viewed (Matsumoto and Lynch 1994). The achievement of separateness and independence spelled out in Mahler's theory reflects the value of a separate self, functioning independently of others, a view characteristic of Western cultures. In non-Western cultures, however, interdependence and connection to others are valued. Conscious experience focuses on the intersubjective awareness of the self with others. Self-esteem is connected to the ability to fit in and to promote cultural tasks that keep relationships harmonious. In contrast, conscious experience in Western culture focuses on the subjective awareness of the self, with less attention paid to others' subjective states. Similarly, self-esteem is tied to the achievement of individual goals. Cross-cultural perspectives shed light on how culture shapes the ways the self, in its relationship to others, is defined (Matsumoto, Kitayama, and Markus 1994).


While many of Mahler's theoretical formulations of infant mental life have been revised by infant and attachment research, Mahler's influence has been far-reaching. Her pioneering observational studies alerted analytic and developmental theorists to the importance of the infant-caregiver relationship in the development of the self. Her clinical observations in early childhood have led to new understandings in the disturbances of the self, seen in psychotic, narcissistic, and borderline phenomena. Theoretically, she shifted the focus away from attachment as an emotional connection occurring from the satisfaction of hunger and other biological needs, by placing relationships in a central role in development. The task now is to continue the revision and extension of psychoanalytic thought in light of infant and attachment research. Researchers will then be in a better position to understand how the self evolves and develops within the cultural contexts that shape its development.

See also:Attachment: Parent-Child Relationships; Boundary Dissolution; Childhood, Stages of: Infancy; Childhood, Stages of: Middle Childhood; Childhood, Stages of: Preschool; Childhood,
Stages of: Toddlerhood
; Children of Alcoholics; Development: Self; Fatherhood; Motherhood; Separation Anxiety


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