Ronald Fairbairn

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Freud's couch, London, 2004 (2).jpeg
Fairbairn's birthplace - The Red House, Cluny Gardens
Ronald Fairbairn's grave, Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh

William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn (/ˈfɛərbɛərn/) FRSE (11 August 1889 – 31 December 1964) was a Scottish psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and a central figure in the development of the object relations theory of psychoanalysis.


Ronald Fairbairn was born at the Red House, Cluny Gardens,[1] in Morningside, Edinburgh in 1889, the only child of Cecilia Leefe and Thomas Fairbairn, a chartered surveyor, and President of the Edinburgh Architectural Association.[2][3] He was educated at Merchiston Castle School and at the University of Edinburgh where he studied for three years in divinity and Hellenic Greek studies, graduating MA in 1911.

In the First World War he joined the Royal Engineers and served under General Allenby in the Palestinian campaign, and then the Royal Garrison Artillery.

On his return to home he began medical training, probably inspired by his war experience. He received a doctorate in Medicine (MD) on 30 March 1929 from the University of Edinburgh.[4] From 1927 to 1935 he lectured in psychology at the University and also independently practised analysis. From 1941 until 1954 he was Consultant Psychiatrist to the Ministry of Pensions.[3]

In 1931 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers were James Drever, Edwin Bramwell, Sir Godfrey Hilton Thomson and Robert Alexander Fleming.

On the basis of his writings he became an associate member of the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1931, becoming a full member in 1939. Fairbairn, though somewhat isolated in that he spent his entire career in Edinburgh,[5] had a profound influence on British object relations and the relational schools. Fairbairn was one of the theory-builders for the Middle Group[6] (now called the Independent Group) psychoanalysts. The Independent Group contained analysts who identified with neither the Kleinians nor the Anna Freudians. They were more concerned with the relationships between people than with the "drives" within them.

He died in Edinburgh at the age of 75. He is buried with his wives in Dean Cemetery in western Edinburgh. The grave lies very close to the main east entrance and lodge-house.


In 1926 Fairbairn married Mary Ann More Gordon (1901–1952) the daughter of Harry More Gordon. Their daughter Ellinor was born in 1927, followed by twins in 1928, however they did not survive. Their fourth child was born in 1929, and in 1933 their fifth son Nicholas was born, who would go on to become a barrister and MP.[2]

In 1959 he married Marion Frances Mackintosh (1907–1995), daughter of Captain H. E. M. Archer.[2]


Fairbairn's works include: Psychoanalytical Studies of the Personality (1952) and From Instinct to Self: Selected Papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn (1994). There is also a biography by John Derg Sutherland, Fairbairn’s Journey into the Interior (1989), a study of his work by James Grotstein and R. B. Rinsley, Fairbairn and the Origins of Object Relations (1994), and an edited study by Neil J. Skolnik and David E. Scharff, Fairbairn Then and Now (1998).

Psychoanalytical Studies of Personality (1952)[edit]

Psychoanalytical Studies of Personality (1952) is a collection of papers previously published in different reviews. The book is divided into three parts, the first being mostly theoretical, the second one clinical, and the third one concerning more general problems. The first four articles contain the largest body of the most innovative Fairbairn concepts. The table of contents entails:

  • Part One: An Object-Relations Theory of the Personality
  1. Chapter I: Schizoid Factors in the Personality (1940)
  2. Chapter II: A Revised Psychopathology of the Psychoses and Psychoneuroses (1941)
  3. Chapter III: The Repression and the Return of Bad Objects (with special reference to the ‘War Neuroses) (1943)
  4. Chapter IV: Endopsychic Structure Considered in Terms of Object-Relationships (1944)
  5. Chapter V: Object-Relationships and Dynamic Structure (1946)
  6. Chapter VI: Steps in the Development of an Object-Relations Theory of the Personality1 (1949)
  7. Chapter VII: A Synopsis of the Development of the Author's Views Regarding the Structure of the Personality (1951)
  • Part Two: Clinical Papers
  1. Chapter I: Notes on the Religious Phantasies of a Female Patient (1927)
  2. Chapter II: Features in the Analysis of a Patient with a Physical Genital Abnormality (1931)
  3. Chapter III: The Effect of a King's Death Upon Patients Undergoing Analysis (1936)
  • Part Three: Miscellaneous Papers
  1. Chapter I: The Sociological Significance of Communism Considered in the Light of Psychoanalysis (1935)
  2. Chapter II: Psychology as a Prescribed and as a Proscribed Subject (1939)
  3. Chapter III: The War Neuroses—Their Nature and Significance (1943)
  4. Chapter IV: The Treatment and Rehabilitation of Sexual Offenders (1946)

Innovative concepts[edit]

The object-seeking libido[edit]

One of the most important contributions of Fairbairn to the psychoanalytic paradigm is proposing an alternative viewpoint regarding the libido. Whereas Freud assumed that the libido is pleasure seeking, Fairbairn thought of the libido as object seeking.[7] That is, he thought that the libido is not primarily aimed at pleasure, but at making relationships with objects external to the self. The first connections a child makes are with his parents. Through diverse forms of contact between the child and his parents, a bond between them is formed. When the bond is formed, the child becomes strongly attached to his parents. This early relationship shapes the emotional life of the child in such a strong way that it determines the emotional experiences that the child will have later on in life, because the early libidinal objects become the prototypes for all later experience of connection with others.

Unity of energy and structure[edit]

Internal object relations[edit]

Fairbairn states that the object relations a child has very early on in life become the child's prototypes for all later experiences regarding connections with others. The internal object relation describes a relation which exists in the person's mind. In the normal situation, healthy parenting results in a child with an outward orientation towards real people, who can give real contact and exchange. When the needs of the child are not met by the parents (e.g. dependency needs and the need for affirmative interactions) a pathological turning away from external reality takes place. Instead of actual exchange with others, fantasised, private presences are established, the so-called internal objects. To these internal objects the child relates in fantasised connections, the internal object relations.

The splitting of the ego[edit]

Fairbairn envisioned the child with largely unavailable parents as differentiating between the responsive aspects of the parents (the good object) and the unresponsive aspects (the unsatisfying object). The child internalises the unresponsive aspects of the parents and fantasizes those features as being a part of him, because they are not available in reality. This defence mechanism is known as "splitting of the ego", where the good and the bad parts of the parents are kept apart, and where there is no possibility to feel ambivalence. For example, when a mother is depressed and denies this, her child is unable to connect completely to her. Therefore, the child identifies itself with this denied part of the parent, and becomes depressed too.


  1. ^ Edinburgh and Leith Post Office Directory 1889-90
  2. ^ a b c Fairbairn, (William) Ronald Dodds (1889–1964), psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/40312.
  3. ^ a b Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  4. ^ Available at the Edinburgh Research Archive.
  5. ^ Rycroft, Charles (1985). Psychoanalysis and after. Chatto. p. 132. ISBN 0-7011-2971-9.
  6. ^ Fuller, Peter (1985). Introduction to "Psychoanalysis and after". Chatto. p. 21. ISBN 0-7011-2971-9.
  7. ^ Fuller, Peter (1985). Introduction to "Psychoanalysis and after". Chatto. p. 18. ISBN 0-7011-2971-9.

External links[edit]