Summary of The War Neuroses

Fairbairn’s theoretical formulation seeks to account for the way in which the infant’s actual experiences with people structure his or her internal world of object relations. For Fairbairn, feelings of security vitally influence the manner by which the infant effectively relates to internalized split-off idealized objects and rejecting objects. Furthermore, Fairbairn views insecurity as stemming primarily from separation anxiety. He argues that this type of anxiety is a causative factor in the development of “schizoid” aspects of personality, engendering a sense of futility and hopelessness. Such a person, he contends, lacks the capacity to differentiate self from other and thus is unable to attain a state of mature dependence.

The Traumatic Factor

On considering the aetiology of the war neuroses, Fairbairn suggests that a previous traumatic experience precipitates psychopathological reactions in soldiers who develop a “war neurosis”; that hitherto pre-existing but latent psychopathological factors are activated by the conditions of war. In formulating his theory, Fairbairn studied military subjects who had been suddenly removed from their normal environment, separated from their love-objects and isolated from accustomed props and supports.

In the case of Gunner W.I., Fairbairn asserts that, despite the soldier having experienced a traumatic wartime incident at sea that culminated in his violently freeing himself from the life-threatening grasp of a Chinese crew member, it was solely the latter specific event that constituted the traumatic experience. Fairbairn suggests that this was so because the soldier equated his death-dealing blow to the Chinese man with an unconscious act of patricide.

While it may be accepted that W.I.’s repressed childhood hatred of his father, and the associated effects of guilt and anxiety, may well have left him vulnerable and contributed to his subsequent psychopathology, Fairbairn’s view that other aspects of the incident were not experienced by W.I. as traumatic seems incredible. It would appear more likely that Gunner W.I. went on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) consequent on his having experienced pain, extreme danger, terror, and helplessness after the oil tanker on which he was serving as a maritime gunner had been set on fire and was sunk in an aerial attack. This is to say nothing of the traumatic effect on him of the death of his comrades, of his having played an active part in the death of another human being, and of the likelihood of his experiencing survivor guilt, particularly as it was his duty to protect the ship and its crew from aerial bombardment.

Infantile Dependence

In looking at a diversity of traumatic experiences, Fairbairn concludes that all psychopathological developments in the adult are based on infantile dependence, that is, on the adult’s failure to attain a state of mature dependence (psychological differentiation). He views all psychoneurotic and psychotic symptoms as “effects of or defences against the conflicts attendant upon a persistent state of infantile dependence”.

This theoretical formulation may be equated, in some degree, with Bowlby’s anxious-insecure patterns of attachment organization, as well as with the symbiosis anxiety attendant on the child’s failure, in interaction with the mother, to successfully negotiate the separation-individuation process, as proposed by Mahler. In line with Fairbairn’s thinking of some two decades earlier, Mahler and her colleagues propose that the optimal outcome of this process leads to the attainment of psychological differentiation and a rooted sense of a unique personal identity.

For his part, Winnicott conceptualizes the process of psychological differentiation in terms of transitional objects. These often take the form of a favourite teddy bear or blanket which, in Winnicott’s formulation, are used by the child to bridge the space between inner and outer reality. Indeed, Winnicott views such phenomena as providing the child with a non-compliant solution to the loss of omnipotence and as assisting him or her to separate from the merged state with the mother.

Bowlby, in comparing attachment theory to the process of separation-individuation, points out that his usage of the word separation is very different from that employed by Mahler. As we have seen, Mahler et al. use the term to refer to a process of differentiation on a psychological level, whereas Bowlby uses the word to imply that the infant’s primary attachment figure is inaccessible in a physical and emotional sense. Similarly, in commenting on Winnicott’s theoretical position, Bowlby construes transitional objects as substitute attachment objects, arguing that the child redirects or displaces his or her attachment behaviour onto such objects because the “natural” object, that is the primary attachment figure/main caregiver, is unavailable.

Fairbairn uses the case of Gunner A.M. (Case 2) to illustrate an instance of infantile dependence. He describes how this soldier desperately clung to his wife on his being called up, and how, when separated from her, he would telephone her daily. The soldier ruminated about his wife in an obsessive manner, became sleep-disordered, and felt depressed and completely alone. He was hospitalised after suffering a bout of fainting attacks.

Fairbairn tells us that A.M. started experiencing such attacks at the age of 15 after seeing a woman collapse in the street. We learn that A.M. remained in an anxious, timid state following this incident, that his mother had died when he was just three years old, that the grandmother who brought him up doted on him, that he slept in the same bed as his grandparents, and that after the death of his grandfather he occupied the same room as his grandmother until he was 18. Fairbairn concludes that A.M.’s infantile dependence was transferred from his grandmother onto his wife-to-be, thus allaying or avoiding the traumatic experience of separation anxiety. However, despite this defensive strategy, A.M. needed the constant company of his wife to contain or keep such anxiety at bay, breaking down following his enforced separation from her.

Fairbairn argues that in cases of infantile dependence, the amount of stress required to produce a breakdown will vary from person to person - that the incidence of the war neurosis will be determined not only by the degree to which infantile dependence has persisted but also by the nature and strength of the individual’s mental defences. It may also be thought that the nature and quality of the original traumatic experience is of considerable significance in this respect.

Separation Anxiety

Fairbairn regards separation anxiety as the most obvious and significant symptom derived from an attitude of infantile dependence. He found this form of anxiety to be the single symptom universally present in war neurotics. Pointing to the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and impulses among neurotic soldiers, Fairbairn links these clinical features to separation anxiety. In posing the question as to why some soldiers break down in the face of danger whilst others do not, he suggests that the capacity to endure danger varies with the extent to which the individual has outgrown the stage of infantile dependence.

Again, the relative severity of the underlying trauma would seem to be of relevance here, together with the mediating effect of subsequent buffering or protective experiences such as a secure attachment relationship. As Main has shown in research employing the Adult Attachment Interview, the quality of the person’s narrative, and the manner in which it is expressed, is of more clinical significance than its historical content, indicating, for example, in instances of childhood trauma that the person has attained a state of “earned security”.

Bowlby, for his part, argues that the infant’s primary need is to form an emotional bond with the mother or main caregiver. His clinical experience led him to propose that when deprived of this relationship through separation and loss, the resultant fear, anxiety and distress have deleterious and long-lasting effects on the person’s overall physical and psychological development. For Bowlby, then, attachment is a basic biological need and separation anxiety a purely instinctive reaction to an external danger which activates a distinct behavioural system.


Fairbairn contends that some individuals adopt an attitude of pseudo-independence as a means of denying infantile dependence. He places Driver J.T. (Case 3) in this category. Fairbairn relates that J.T. had an extremely unhappy and insecure childhood characterized by his witnessing domestic violence between his parents, rows with neighbours, fleeing the home at the dead of night with his mother to escape his violent father, and frequent moves of home. J.T’s father eventually abandoned the family and was later killed in a motor accident. J.T. was drawn to life at sea (his father having been a sea-faring man), but at times he experienced an overwhelming compulsion to stay with his mother between voyages. However, J.T. could only remain at home for a week or two during which time he often wished his mother was dead because of their fraught and antagonistic relationship.

Fairbairn sees J.T.’s case as an example of a deeply repressed attitude of infantile dependence masked by a superficial attitude of exaggerated independence or pseudo-independence. Fairbairn contends that J.T. renounced all intimacy of social contact because of his childhood insecurity, and that he never attained mature dependence in respect of his mother, hence his compulsion to return to her. Moreover, Fairbairn suggests that for J.T., the sea itself came to represent the longed-for dependable mother. Thus, J.T. would become “homesick for the sea” after a period of separation from it. Fairbairn argues that at the deeper mental levels, J.T. was reduced to the position of a child tossed between two mother-figures, neither of which he could do without.

While we may agree with much of this, Fairbairn’s conclusion would seem to leave the father out of the picture. It may be posited that J.T. was drawn to the sea in indentification with his sea-faring father, the loss of whom he never fully mourned. His ambivalent attitude, vacillating between life at sea and at home with his mother, may consist of an unconscious re-enactment of the divided loyalty he experienced in his interpersonal relationships with his respective parents.

In support of Fairbairn’s conclusions however, J.T.’s attitude would appear to resonate with Ainsworth’s ambivalent-resistant classification of an insecure pattern of attachment. Main’s research has demonstrated that this particular pattern of attachment develops in relation to a preoccupied-entangled parental state of mind in respect of attachment. From the details provided by Fairbairn, it would appear that J.T.’s mother was deeply entangled with her husband in a violent and volatile relationship characterized by frequent separations and reunions. To this extent we may conjecture that she was transferring an internally represented ambivalent-resistant attachment history, derived from characteristic relational configurations with her own parents, onto her marital relationship. These relational patterns and implicitly encoded procedures came, in turn, to structure J.T.’s personality via what Schore terms “interactive emotion-transacting mechanisms” – the intergenerational transmission of attachment, trauma, affect regulation and reflective functioning.

The Compulsion to Return Home

Fairbairn avers that in all cases of infantile dependence and separation anxiety there is a compulsion to return home. He argues that this compulsion may give rise to marked disturbances in behaviour in some cases, leading to an attempt at suicide in instances where the individual’s strong sense of duty conflicts with the compulsive desire to return home. This was the situation in Case 4, that of Cpl. J.F.

Having experienced a prolonged period of separation from his newly married wife because of an unaccompanied tour of duty in India, J.F.’s return to England for de-mobilization was delayed by an international incident. Shortly after his eventual discharge from the Army in 1938, he was recalled to the Colours following the outbreak of the Second World War. J.F. was granted several periods of compassionate leave to visit his sick wife and child. He experienced an increasing level of emotional distress each time he had to leave his wife. Fairbairn tells us that the conflict between J.F.’s sense of duty and his compulsion to return home overwhelmed him. He attempted suicide en route back to his barracks by drinking a toxic substance that he had purchased from a chemist’s shop, seeing this as the only solution to his otherwise irresolvable dilemma.

Fairbairn again emphasises the significance of an unhappy and disturbed early life. He informs us that J.F. experienced parental quarrels and a traumatic, though temporary, abandonment by his mother. We learn that he became very attached to and dependent on his mother following this traumatic event.

Main’s disorganized-disoriented classification of attachment comes to mind in J.F.’s case, and the match between this pattern of attachment and that of a parent with an unresolved state of mind in respect of attachment. Moreover, we may wonder whether, in the dramatic act of abandoning husband and child, J.T.’s mother threatened to kill herself. Certainly, Bowlby cautions us to enquire into such possibilities when working with clients who threaten to complete or have attempted suicide.

Emotional Identification

As mentioned above, Fairbairn contends that the compulsion to return home is accompanied by separation anxiety. In detailing the mental process that constitutes the distinctive psychological feature of infantile dependence, he points to the clinical issue of identification. He views the process of identification in instances of infantile dependence as indicating that the individual has failed to differentiate himself from those upon whom he emotionally depends. Fairbairn argues that the connection between identification and infantile dependence is so intimate that “psychologically speaking, they may be treated as the same phenomenon”.

In Fairbairn’s view, separation anxiety retains the impress of the birth trauma. He posits that conditions of war precipitate a revival of the birth trauma “at the deep mental level at which it lies buried”. He suggests that, while the individual will have no conscious memory of the birth trauma, this fundamental experience may explain why traumatic events produce a state of acute separation anxiety. As we have seen, Fairbairn views separation anxiety as a characteristic of individuals who have remained in a state of infantile dependence and who make identification the basis of their emotional relationships with those upon whom they depend. He argues that in the case of dependent individuals the original identification with the mother persists underneath all other identifications subsequently made. He contends that the more emotionally mature an individual becomes the less his relationships will be characterized by identification.

Fairbairn suggests that the individual’s progressive decrease in identification is accompanied by the progressive increase in his capacity to differentiate himself from emotionally significant figures. For Fairbairn, the hallmark of emotional maturity consists in the capacity to sustain relationships on a basis of mutual independence, as well as the capacity to contract fresh relations. His clinical experience led him to conclude that these capacities are deficient in those who fail to outgrow the stage of infantile dependence. He argues that such relations as the dependent individual is able to sustain in adulthood conform to the pattern of his early relationship with his mother and, by a process of transference, assume the emotional significance of his original relationship with her.

Contemporary research would seem to support Fairbairn’s proposition in this regard, at least to some extent. Findings indicate that repeated patterns of interaction become internally represented and generalised in the form of internal working models. Though operating outside of conscious awareness, implicitly encoded models guide and direct the individual’s thoughts, feelings, memories, behaviour and attention in interpersonal relationships. Archaic mental models encapsulating unresolved trauma lie dormant in secure contexts but are prone to sudden disinhibition and activation in stressful situations involving separation, abandonment and loss.

In Fairbairn’s view, infantile dependence is the condition of the individual who develops a war neurosis, in that such a person retains an undue measure of childish dependence upon home and loved ones because of being too closely identified with them to endure separation. Furthermore, Fairbairn asserts that the insecure person’s loved ones tend to constitute not only his emotional world but also, in a sense, his whole self. Fairbairn avers that such a person tends to feel that he is part of those he loves and that they are part of him – that he is psychologically merged with them. In the absence of his loved ones, the dependent person’s very personality tends to be diminished and, in extreme cases, his sense of personal identity may be compromised.

Fairbairn concludes that when placed under military conditions, the overly dependent individual finds it too difficult to establish himself as a separate personality and to subordinate himself to the aims of the military group without any surrender of his independence. Similarly, such a person experiences difficulty in maintaining stable emotional bonds with the group whilst remaining differentiated from it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X
Written by Paul Renn
Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X

I am a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author in private practice in central and southwest London (see below in 'Extra Information' for details of my practice addresses). I am accredited by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). I work with individuals, offer couples coun...


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