Loss, detachment and defence
Abstract of paper submitted by Dr John Bowlby for the Twenty third Psychoanalytical Congress
After a young child has been away from his mother figure for a few weeks it is common for him to show some degree of detachment from her. To explain this behaviour there are three main hypotheses current: that it is due to a withdrawal of libido and therefore not to a defensive process; that it is due to defensive processes originating during the separation experience itself; that, although due to defensive processes, these do not originate during separation but are to be traced to faulty development that has already occurred in an earlier phase, especially during the first year of life. The conclusion that will be drawn is that such evidence as we have favours the second hypothesis, namely that detached behaviour is due to the effects of defensive processes that originate during the separation experience itself.
Although at variance with the formulations of some prominent analysts, this conclusion is consonant with many of Freud’s ideas on the problem of defence: repression, splitting of the ego and denial are each traced by him to the experience of loss. Other analysts, too, have recognised that a common condition in which these defences are evoked is loss of a loved object.