HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Nikos MarketosPsychiatrist – Systemic Psychotherapist
  • projective identification
  • Container/Contained
  • moral defense
  • object-relations


This article examines a number of negative consequences on the evolving relationship of parent and child, while also approaching some theories on object-relations. In particular, Bion's Theory on projective identification and Container/Contained and Fairnbairn’s theory for the “Moral Defense Against Bad Objects" are presented. The basic concepts of the two theories are briefly described and clinical examples are presented. The article also examines the possibility of utilizing psychoanalytic theories within an interactive approach based on systemic theory. It is argued that these theories provide a reliable conceptual framework for understanding the dynamics of parent/child relationships.

Key-words : projective identification, Container/Contained, moral defense, object-relations


Family therapists, in search of models that rely more on emotional processes in the family, have turned to the psychoanalytic roots to better explain human motives, feelings, and behaviors. Bowen talked about the projective processes in family describing how parents unwittingly project the repressed feelings they had towards their own parents onto their children (Bowen M., 1966). Emotional attachment system (Bowlby J., 1969) is essential for survival and healthy growth. The insecure emotional attachment, but also the inability of the parents to provide a satisfactory empathetic support and reflection to the distress of the child, as described by Bion (1959) and the internalization of the frustrating and rejecting aspects of the parents, as described by Fairnbairn (1952) can lead to the manifestation of emotional and functional problems.

The systemic therapists can harness aspects from the object-relations approaches in the context of systemic epistemology. However, the need to avoid a confusing eclecticism must be pointed out (Boscolo, L., Bertrando, P. 1996). Psychoanalysts advanced the understanding of the unconscious relational dynamics within the family. They explored the rich inner psychological life (symbolic, unconscious, and emotional) of a subject in the System (Larner, 2000). But they focused mainly on the mother and child binary relationship. The systemic theory explores the interaction of mother and child in its reciprocity and in a circularity that involves all the members of the family in a process evolving through time.

The child needs safety, joy, play, encouragement, educationand care. Parents, motivated by sincere love, wish to offer their children what they believe to be the best. Many times, while they wish to see their children happy, they achieve the opposite effects. Problems arise when, for the sake of protection, they grow up a fearful and timid child; when for the sake of excellence, they instigate anxiety and low self-esteem to their child; when for the sake of teaching the "must" and the “don’t”, they implant a rigid tyrannical moral code in the child’s psyche. Other factors, which divert the normal psychological and emotional maturity of the child, include negative family processes, family and marital conflicts and cases where the emotional needs of children are subordinated to the emotional needs of adults, but also when there are other limitations, some of which may be inevitable (parent who is ill, absence of parent etc). In such cases, the child is deprived of the nutritional, supportive and productive environment he needs.

Two useful theories that illustrate the negative consequences of parent-child interactions, are Bion's (1962) theory of  container and contained and projective identification , and Fairnbairn's theory of  moral defense against bad objects  (1952).

**Bion: projective identification and container/contained **

Bion (1959) saw the mechanism of projective identification as a communication process between the child and the mother and examined its role in the normal development of the child. The infant projects to the mother the unbearable and unspeakable stress, so that she can experience it and eventually contain it and then return it to the child. The receptive mother takes into account the infant’s often hostile projective identifications and, through the gradual change of feelings and thoughts she is experiencing, allows them to "evolve into an understanding of what the child is experiencing". This process is not just a mirroring of the moods and impulses of the infant; it is an active involvement with the infant's mental state, showing the infant how its projections can be detoxified, metabolized and eventually become tolerable and "take shape and form". Bion (1962) named the place where the projection lands up the “container" and the material which is projected the "contained".

This process helps the child to develop thinking and imagination. This ability absorbs the impact of unpredictable and varied frustrations that compose the infant’s world, promotes the differentiation between self and the other and contributes to the cohesion of the child’s internal world (Segal, 1955).

What Bion is saying is that the ability of thinking and contemplation emerges and evolves into a relationship with someone who is fully interested in knowing us and responding to us (Flaskas C. 2005). This projective process evolves in all relationships, not only in the mother - infant relationship, but also into adulthood and trough it the fertile ground for the production of meaning and empathy, of all members of the family, grows.

Let us look at some examples of this process that highlight the dynamic nature of the interaction between the child and the caregiver, and also among all family members. A)
Anestis, five years old, is an only child. He cannot collaborate harmoniously with the other children in games. He fights with them, leaves and goes to his mother. She intervenes and destroys the other children’s game. In that case, the mother cannot bear to see the child struggling. She does not really have the capacity to stay for long enough with the feelings that the child has projected on her so as to be able to sift through them and find out what the child is truly trying to say. The child is not trying to communicate that he wants the problem to be solved; he is trying to tell the mother about the intense distress that he felt when faced with the prospect of having to do something alone. Mother seems eager to relieve the child to protect him from being exposed to distress.
When a child can withstand a tolerable amount of anxiety and frustration, he can develop the ability to symbolize. The meaning evolves in the process of child interaction with the parent. The meaning does not dwell either in the face of the parent or in the child's psyche. It is a product of their interaction and a process in which they can both grow emotionally. What internalizes the child then is an object that can take meaning in the "here and now" in a variety of different interactions. Thinking becomes not just the imposition of reason and rationality but a jump into the unknown and the ability to withstand the yawning void while waiting for the meaning to take shape (Sandler, 2005).

During adolescence, Anestis repeatedly became a victim of bullying. Puzzled about it, the father thought that, in order to deal with the problem, he would have to take his son to learn karate. B)
_Nikitas, 6 years old, is a student in the 1st grade and has a developmental stutter. The family was referred to family therapy by the speech therapist. However, in the first session the parents state that their main concern is that Nikitas is not concentrating on doing his homework and their request from us is how they will make him do his homework. They have tried various methods like pressure, promises, punishments, but the problem is not solved. Mother mentions the virtue of her older daughter (9 years old), who is a perfectionist. She is an excellent student and deals with a wide range of activities with high performance. Mother asserts that Nikitas’ teacher is demanding, and gives the responsibility to the parents to make sure that the child goes to school with his homework completed. She is also concerned that he will _ lag behind in lessonscompared to the other children . In the couple's relationship there seems to be no obvious tensions, but there seems to be a large amount of silent anger.
In the session the therapist asks Nikitas to do a drawing. The remarkable thing is the mother’s gaze as the child is drawing. By wrongly considering that the therapist is submitting the child to a test, she watches her son with an examiner's gaze and shows anguish to see if he will succeed. The father watches expressionless.

If in the case of Anestis, the mother intervenes directly to protect the child from feeling distressed, in the case of Nikitas, what is noteworthy is the mother's examining glance and her readiness to reject the child if he fails. The mother cannot stand the thought of the child failing. The recurring experience of the child is that his mother is continually grading him. She cannot handle her own feelings of weakness and worthlessness; the result is that these feelings are returned to the child unmodified. The child enters into a process in which, in order to achieve the love of the parents, he must constantly improve his performance; be in an unceasing process of progress.

_There's a couple coming for therapy. Their daughter Irene, 38 years old, had been addicted to drugs and followed a rehabilitation _ program to come off them. Afterwards professionals from the program helped her to find a job. In the first session mother says, "I have done individual and group therapy, and I have heard from experts what is right and wrong in the handling of our daughter. We have been told not to interfere with her personal matters. We came here because my husband makes mistakes ... We have the suspicion that our daughter has left the job. My husband, despite having been told by the experts not to interfere in her business, called to her boss to ask. "
The therapist asks the father:
Therapist: What are you worried about?
Father: That she is caught up with drugs again.
Therapist: Did you share this concern with your wife?
-At this point the mother intervenes and in an intense tone states, "I do not want to hear such words. I cannot bear the idea that she may have relapsed."
We could comprehend the interactions of all members in the family as processes of projective identification in the sense given by Bion. The mother repels the anguish of the father's because she cannot stand it. Thus, the father, unable to share his anguish with his wife, disconnects from her and attempts to solve his issues on his own. Both cannot share their anxiety so that through communication it can become tolerable and manageable, until the meaning will emerge, because they both defend themselves not to be "infected" by the negative emotions of the other. These parents, unable to provide each other with sufficient empathetic support, cannot give their daughter a model of coping with difficult situations. The child perhaps has the same frustrating emotional experience in her interaction with the parents. However, in addition to her direct interaction with her parents, she is also witnessing the interaction between them.  Watching how they manage their emotions, she internalizes their ways. When this kind of parental reaction to the expression of vulnerable emotions is repetitive, the child grows up in an environment where parents fail to make a soothing reflection of their inner experience. The result is a weak self, prone to turn to the pursuit of exciting stimuli in its attempt to ward off a more destructive fragmentation of the self.

Fairnbairn: moral defense against bad objects

Fairnbairn, describes the effects on the child's inner world when the child internalizes the rejecting and frustrating aspects of the parent. This may be the case for families which evaluate control, hierarchy and discipline as more important and for families with limited emotional expression or when care is expressed and perceived in a utilitarian manner. It may also be the case in families where parents of good intentions want to instill in their children discipline and competitiveness, or wish the children to implement their own unfulfilled dreams.

In the case of negative experiences from the parent who was frustrating and rejecting, the child's developmental needs are not met, and the child remains attached to the rejecting parent, waiting to get the necessary developmental supplies to stand alone. Fairbairn assumed that one of the early ways that the child attempts to stay attached to the rejecting objects is to internalize them, because containing them internally obtains access to them when they are not available in reality. Once they are internalized, the child’s psychological development is further hampered, because its focus remains on the inner world, which increasingly becomes a closed system (due to the continually frustrating experiences of its external reality).

Unlike the satisfying object, the unsatisfying object has two sides. On the one hand, it is frustrating; and, on the other hand, it is tempting and alluring. The child in his attempt to control this object has introduced into the inner economy of his mind an object which not only continues to frustrate his need but also continues to excite it (Fairbairn, 1952).

The act of separating the neglectful internalized object into two components: the rejecting partial-object (thus frustrating) and the exciting partial-object (also frustrating due to the unfulfilled promises), also separates the child's sense of self into two separate partial selves; one that relates to the internalized rejecting parent who fears abandonment hates the self and the parent and is permeated by a sense of self-righteous revenge and the other that relates to the internalized tempting promising and alluring parent and it is filled with unrealistic hope of love.

The "third" pair of self and object in the child's inner world is made up of memories of when the parents were properly emotionally supportive and gratifying. These early relational memories can form a substrate that is the unconscious basis for love, trust and empathy for others. The majority of the memories of the affectionate parent remain available in the consciousness. Even unbearably rejecting parents engage their children in supportive interactions and thus there are usually several events to create a small version of this inner structure. However, in many cases its presence remains dim, because in fact there have been too few developmentally positive interactions with the ideal object.

The defensive mechanism of splitting prevents the child from integrating the good and bad aspects of his parent into a finite object that has positive and negative sides, as would have happened if the child had experienced a normal emotional development. This mechanism helps the child to ensure the necessary attachment to his needed objects, by repressing the memories of the hundreds of negative interactions which, if fully aware, would destroy the essential bond with the object. This structural defense becomes more and more abnormal over time when the developmental tendency to integrate good and bad parts of the same object has to be continuously nullified to protect the child from intolerable sources of frustration and to allow it to remain attached to the increasingly desperately needed object (Celani P.D., 2007).

In many families the negative aspects of parents are so powerful and the resulting frustration of legitimate developmental needs is so severe, that the negative partial self and its hostile relationship to the rejecting object becomes vital to the definition of self and gives meaning in the child’s life (and later in adulthood). This intra-psychic structure continues to reproduce "bad" relationships in perpetuity (Celani P. D., 2007).

For example, an individual who is dominated by the negative partial self may experience all authoritative figures as corrupt, abusers of power, and his/her unconscious goal may be to expose them and seek public revenge. Conversely, a person who is dominated by the partial self associated with the tempting, alluring object can spend his/her life in pursuit of inappropriate objects for love and appreciation. The predominant need of the child is not for pleasure or gratification of needs but for an intense relationship with another person. If only painful experiences are provided, the child does not abandon and seek pleasant experiences elsewhere, but seeks pain as a vehicle for interaction with the significant other. Pervasive emotions, self-destructive relationships, self-inflicting situations are re-created throughout life as vehicles which perpetuate the experience of early ties to significant others (Celani P.D., 2007). It is an accident that is repeated. Thalia, aged 30, came for individual therapy because the men with whom she made bonds, either abused or abandoned her. She mentions a previous abusive relationship with a man who treated her sadistically.
During the course of psychotherapy she had another relationship. She reported that this guy seemed different and “caring”. However he gradually began moving away. Then she waited for hours for a phone call from him. He answered: “That’s me, and I am not changing". Finally, she broke up with him.
The dependency on rejecting and exciting objects leaves the child with her needs unsatisfied, but at the same time she is afraid to express negative feelings towards the needed parental object. Since on the one hand, it is calculated to make it reject it all the more and thus increase its “badness” and make it seem more real in its capacity as a bad object. On the other hand, it is calculated to decrease its “goodness” and destroy its property as a good object, and then the hope that the significant other will show the positive side at some point finally collapses.

Deep inside the child "protects the goodness and virtue of her parents", and is willing to bear the responsibility of rejection and neglect. This pattern is also established in adult life. Hiding from the reality that her parents are "bad parents" allows the child to support the illusion that there is hope for her in the future and that if she behaves in a different manner, she will be able to find the key to her parents love. Fairnbairn, called this mechanism, " Moral Defense Against bad Objects " (1952b). Both moral defense and splitting defense play central roles in the inner world of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. The immature splitting defense isolates and represses the worst memories of neglect or abuse, and the later formed moral defense consciously justifies parents for their hostile and deceptive treatment of her.

Moral defense is reinforced by the parent’s tendency to define rules that the child is supposed to have violated. Thalia works in her father's company. Father is constantly critical and demanding. He never praises good work. He constantly makes comments about successive mistakes and this makes her feeling offended and ashamed.
The concept of "mystification of experience" refers to a person’s losing the ability to form a personal perception and judgment of their own experience. Instead, she adopts the perception of the important other about her experience (Winckler, 1995).

The mystification of the experience is reinforced by the child's need to keep misperceiving her parents as irreproachable. This blurred perception allows parents to punish and criticize their children by defining the child’s transgressions as moral faults, which further incriminates them. The confusion of the child is accentuated by the firm belief that the parents’ motivation is benevolent. Parents deny that they are tough, critical and arbitrary, and tend to prohibit the direct expression of anger, resentment or retaliation, claiming such behavior as irrelevant to any conceivable reason (Winckler, 1995). Thalia says about father: I feel I have no right to be angry with him. Father has a right to be angry because he says "I provide you with everything", which is true.
Thus the parents reinforce the use of moral defense and, there is a strong synergy between the parents' unconscious strategies and the child's need to keep misperceiving her parents as irreproachable. Another use of morality in these families is to use it as a means of enforcement and control through the promotion of moral superiority. Super-kindness as a way of controlling is very evident in these homes. Uncertain of herself, and too sensitive to disapproval, she is afraid to take risks associated with initiative, decisions and actions.
She feels compelled and burdened by the demands of others, but at the same time these demands exempt her from the task of decision-making. Any decision she makes exposes her to possible criticism, either from the people of her current immediate environment or from her internalized rejecting object. Over time, her central ego has been eroded to the point that she loses her sense of conviction about reality. She feels that she constantly needs others to validate what she already knows.
Early and later experiences in the family gradually made her lose the ability to form a personal perception and opinion of the events. Instead she adopts the perception and opinion of the powerful other. The narrative about her life does not come from personal experience, but from someone else's story. Since adolescence, Thalia began to have a more obvious hostility towards her mother and dependence on her father.
Now she's expressing an aversion to her mother. “My mother,” she states, “did not want other children to come to the house. She used to pressure me into eating. She did not take me into consideration."
"I feel ashamed of my mother’s behaviour because she's been passive throughout her life. She didn't have any friends. All the friends were through my father. Generally, what she did was with my father’s agreement. "
In a later session she mentions, "I do not want to have a child, because emotionally I have nothing to give it and I do not want it to suffer like me."
The extremely detailed and slow performance of the task assigned to her is an “acting out” of the struggle between her internal demanding object that demands perfection and her covertly defiant part-self which overly “tries” to comply with this arbitrary demand, but in a manner that cancels it. So it is likely to frustrate the internalized rejecting object in order to sustain her sense of self.

The struggle between the internalized rejecting object requiring perfection and the exasperated but passively aggressive reactive partial self may be the source of both the symptoms and the transference.


This article focuses on understanding the dynamics in family relationships from the perspective of the two theories of Bion and Fairnbairn. Further discussion could be extended to the analysis and understanding of the transference and to the possibilities offered for therapeutic interventions. In addition to the two theories presented and other psychoanalytic theories, such as Winnicott’s for the false self (1960), Ferenczi’s (1932) for the identification with the aggressor, in which Ferenczi analyzes abuse and victimization, Kohut’s (1972) for narcissistic rage and the idealization of the parental figure, intra-psychic understanding of the relational experience can be contributed.

The intersection of ideas from systemic and psychoanalytic fields of therapy and from social and human sciences, are part of the postmodern thought developed by Foucault, Gadamer and Ricoeur, Flaskas (2002). Writing from a Systemic perspective, Boscolo and Bertrando (1996) advocate the idea of being able to ​​work across different therapeutic approaches and suggest that the idea of ​​a diversity of models is consistent with the "emerging paradigm of complexity in the humanities, according to which the most appropriate way of seeing and understanding the world is through a network of theories”.


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