Saints and sinners: Breaking the cycle of painful relationships with Fairbairn & creative approaches

 Many people feel curious about why they continue to repeat the same relational patterns that they consciously know make them suffer and find themselves attracted to in relationships with people who in the end make them suffer. This blog aims to explore how this profoundly painful dynamic develops and how it can be healed and lead to a potentially more fulfilling and creative life, predominantly using the theories of Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn.

 Everyone experiences some level of emotional or psychological wounding as children yet it is those who have experienced trauma will often unconsciously attempt to later heal their wounds through unhealthy relationships and addictions.

 Ronald Fairbairn was a pioneer in terms of shining a light on the potentially devastating impact of relational trauma experienced at an early age.  He wrote extensively about how unbearable it is for a child when a parent is abusive and how, as a means of coping, children will unconsciously split the intolerable aspects of the relationship by repressing them so that they become unconscious. In short, they take in the ‘bad’ to keep the caregiver ‘good.’ Fairbairn understood very well that humans are object seeking and need love in order to survive. From the child’s perspective the caregiver must be kept 'good' at whatever cost, even when the child feels terrified or profoundly disturbed. Fairbairn’s poetic quote is now infamous and describes this tragic process so eloquently: “it is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil” (Fairbairn, 1952, p.p. 66-67).

Exciting – rejecting  – rejecting - exciting

 One half of the split that is internalised is the part of the parent that neglects the child, which Fairbairn called the ‘rejecting object.’ Attached to the ‘rejecting object’ is the part of the child that feels hurt, shamed and hostile as a result of the parental neglect.  Fairbairn called this the ‘anti-libidinal ego’ or ‘internal saboteur’. The latter is often referred to as the ‘inner critic’ in popular culture and the level of harshness of said critic can be attributed to an internalisation of the ‘bad’ aspects of the original ‘rejecting object.’ As well as turning this on oneself, again due to its unconscious nature, this can also be projected onto others who are judged harshly as ‘too needy’ or ‘so aggressive’ as the parts of the traumatised self become intolerable to bear.

 Although internalised distortions of experience such as these can be highly debilitating & punishing, awareness that this inner voice is not actually one’s own but one that has been internalised is an important first step to recovery and greater levels of self-compassion.

 The other half of the relationship that is repressed is the part of the parent that is ‘tantalising’; an oasis in a desert of pain: Fairbairn called this the ‘exciting object’. The part of the child that longs desperately to be loved and is attached to the ‘exciting object’ he called the ‘libidinal ego’.  An example of this is when one is highly preoccupied by a particular relationship and endlessly checks one’s phone for a message from them and which never arrives.

It is important to reiterate that whenever one is at the mercy of either ‘rejecting’ or ‘exciting’ object the unconscious is fully in control and that is why people feel consciously so out of control in these moments. Continuing with the previous phone analogy, one may also oscillate very rapidly between two sides of the split, loving the ‘exciting’ person one moment, loathing them for the rejection and hurt they have caused, then loathing oneself for the neediness and hurt. It is a very painful cycle to be stuck in.


Demon lover/Angel lover

Importantly, the process of splitting gives the child the illusion of control in situations where in reality they have none: the unconscious fantasy splits the aforementioned aspects of the parent and the child so that they can be managed. Splitting is a very natural part of a child’s way of making sense of the world and this continues into adulthood to some extent, simply as a way of adapting to what life throws at us. Yet it is when these split off and unconscious parts of the self take control and render one’s worldview rigid and narrow that relational suffering takes place. For those who have experienced relational trauma, this split is often enacted by choosing abusive partners who one either profoundly loves or hates.

‘Angel or devil I don't care
For in front of that door
There is you’

 Jacques Brel

This splitting process has been referred to as an archetypal ‘demon lover’ complex (anti-libidinal ego – rejecting object) or what I will call the angel lover complex (libidinal ego – exciting object.) The power of these unconscious aspects of the self go some way to explaining the potent feeling of ‘chemistry’ or ‘connection’ that survivors of relational trauma often feel towards the demon/angel lover who contains characteristics of the parent. This powerful feeling that drives this attraction is borne out of the child’s initial desire to be loved and which was not met.

 This archetypal dynamic is explored further by Clarissa Pinkola Estes through the Grimm fairytale ‘Bluebeard’, where the youngest sister in the tale goes against the better judgement of her initial instincts (and that of her two elder sisters) which she almost pays for with her life. With unconscious forces playing such a large influence in the perceptive experience of the traumatised person, they may feel very in touch with their instincts. However, as they have often learned that they are ‘wrong’ or that their experience is not valid they have learned to ignore it. Intuition is silenced by the traumatised aspects of the psyche: its voice so easily drowned out by the clamour of the past.

Flexibility and curiosity

The third and final part of the child’s experience according to Fairbairn’s model is not repressed and forms the contents of the ‘central ego’. This ‘central ego’ is attached to the ‘ideal object’ (parent/caregiver) that has been internalised through the positive relational experiences that made the child feel safe and emotionally held. This means that the child is able to carry this internalised sense of this emotional safety into adulthood and which nurtures a sense of nuanced flexibility and curiosity, contrasting the rigidity of unconscious splitting.

 This ‘central ego’ is not adversely affected by negative relational experiences and is able to reflect on experience, meaning that, continuing with the phone example, when it is in charge one is less likely to be checking every couple of minutes for that elusive message and decides, despite the strong temptation to do otherwise, it might be better do something else and check in later. This is the part of the self that can be nurtured through psychotherapy and healthy relationships to attenuate the volume of the unconscious voices of the traumatised past.

How the circle can be broken

Relational trauma can feel endless and inescapable but there are ways of not only coming to terms with it but also to leading a fulfilling and creative life. However, there are no quick fixes and healing is an ongoing process. Fairbairn’s deeply compassionate model can provide some very important initial relief by helping survivors to understand that there is nothing innately ‘wrong’ with them as individuals: they are simply the survivors of relationships which have forced them to adapt in the best way that they could at that time.

 Healing comes through an integration of the needy and hostile parts of the child personality (libidinal/ anti-libidinal egos) and allowing them to integrate with the adult part of the personality (central ego.)  Therapy can be helpful in terms of helping the inner child to receive the embodied sense of safety that they were denied as children. This new nurturing parent-child relationship can be internalised via the predictable and containing nature of the therapeutic relationship. It can also help survivors of relational trauma to notice together with the therapist (without judgement) how their own relationships may have changed during the course of therapy.

Through the glass and the shades between 

When we see only see through a glass darkly or lightly, we miss much of the shades between. Coming to terms with ordinary, grey reality can indeed be frightening and some traumatised people do not feel alive unless they live at extremes. This is why I emphasise the compassionate aspect of this work as beginning to reflect on experience and taking conscious ownership of one’s own life in this way can be both scary and liberating: it can feel precarious as one learns to trust one’s instincts once again, harness them as an inner resource and trust that they can be balanced with the reflective capacity of one’s adult self.

 As the voices of the unconscious which propel one towards negative experience are attenuated, other, more colourful aspects of the unconscious can be seen and experienced again, perhaps those that were crushed at the time of the original trauma and where play, creativity, the imagination and dreams reside.  This connection with these lost parts of the unconscious is a very important ally in the healing process and one can find deep connection with again through visual art, dance, drama, visualisation, journaling and dream diaries to name just a few ideas. These creative endeavours open new doors to long dormant aspects of the imaginations and one’s childhood self again, giving one a heightened sense of the multiplicity of what is within conscious and unconscious reality, and decreases the likelihood of holding distorted perceptions of ourselves and other people.


Celani, D. (2010). Fairbairn's Object Relations Theory in the Clinical Setting. New York: Columbia University Press.

Estés, C. (2003). Women who run with the wolves. New York: Ballantine Books.

Fairbairn, R. (1994). Psychoanalytic studies of the personality. London: Routledge.

Kalsched, D. (2014). The Inner World of Trauma. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.