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If we place the paternal model of containment that I have tried to describe, which emphasizes grace under fire, alongside the maternal model of containment, which emphasizes receptivity and sensitivity to the patient’s state of mind, we arrive at an understanding of the theory of the container that is richer than what we could arrive at on the basis of either model alone. The maternal model of containment emphasizes receptivity to and contact with the patient’s state of mind. This establishes the empathic link needed for analysis. The paternal model emphasizes not being driven to do something as a result of what has been received and contacted. This establishes the analyst as an object distinct from the patient, setting up a kind of barrier between the analyst and the patient that ultimately makes the patient aware of the inevitable gap between herself and the analyst. This in turn ushers in the possibility for the patient to perceive the analyst as a whole object, distinct from the patient’s projections, and thus to enter into the depressive position with regard to him.

For containment to occur, the analyst must be in good enough contact with the patient to apprehend intuitively and empathically what the patient is projecting, but must also have a barrier strong enough to withstand the pressure to act —to do something to relieve the situation instead of patiently analysing it—that the projection exerts on him. If the analyst is not driven to act, he has time to think about what the patient has projected. This absorption, distancing and thinking is dream-like and largely unconscious, and is what Bion called reverie. The capacity for reverie on which successful containment depends is a product of both the analyst’s contact with the patient and his distance from her. This is the analyst’s depressive relationship to the patient.

For self-containment to occur, the patient must be aware of the contact existing with the analyst, but also of the gap separating her from him. Acknowledgment of this gap allows her to see him as a whole object, which is a prerequisite for her feeling the gratitude and love for his containment that is necessary for selfcontainment to develop. This is the patient’s depressive relationship to the analyst.

I have described the maternal model and the paternal as two models of containment. From another perspective, they are a single model of what Klein called the combined parental object—maternal and paternal qualities combined —an internal object that she regarded as the unconscious basis of all creativity. The maternal model alone, without the father, is a pre-Oedipal model of the container, the employment of which makes it difficult to move the patient beyond the pre-Oedipal phase of development, while the combined model I am describing is an Oedipal model that facilitates mature resolution of the Oedipal situation and true maturity.

There is a little-noted passage in Learning from Experience in which Bion, discussing the maternal model of containment, says almost in passing that, “If the feeding mother cannot allow reverie or if the reverie is allowed but is not associated with love for the child or its father this fact will be communicated to the infant even though incomprehensible to the infant” (Bion, 1994, p. 36). Reverie seems here to require that the feeding mother love the child’s father. What’s that got to do with it? And what, if this is a model of psychoanalysis, would the mother’s love for the father be modelling? I believe that the father in this model is the Oedipal father—an object that interposes itself between the infant and mother. The mother’s love for the father represents an area of her mind that is not centred on the infant. A father must be present in the mother’s mind—and so therefore must an Oedipal triangle—if the mother is to properly exercise the reverie her child needs and if her child is to benefit from it. What this is a model of is the analyst’s dual allegiance to the patient and to the truth (i.e., realities that impose themselves on her and on her patient). This allegiance to the truth is something in the analyst’s work that makes unalloyed devotion to relieving the patient’s suffering impossible. In terms of the analytic situation, it prevents the analyst from identifying completely with the patient’s suffering, and this makes him—and consequently his patient—aware of the gap between them. The patient must acknowledge, accept and come to love the gap between himself and the analyst—the sense of the analyst’s grasp exceeding his own—if he is to achieve true independence and what I am calling self-containment. One implication of this is that the Oedipus complex may not be resolved by identification with the parents. Identification with them, being a defence against awareness of their separateness, is a defence against the pain of the Oedipal situation, which is resolved only by a recognition and acceptance of their separateness.

If we simply equate the theory of the container with the maternal model, we lose sight of the elements in the psychoanalytic situation that require a paternal function. This function defends the analyst’s maternal linking and synthesis from the patient’s attacks on them. This not only preserves the analysis, but gives the patient an opportunity to recognize her own aggression. It also preserves a gap between patient and analyst, which gives the patient a chance to mourn the analysis and thereby establish, however painfully, the depressive identification needed for real self-containment.

Both of these paternal functions impose painful work on the patient. If we fail to recognize the inevitability of this pain, and fail to recognize paternal containment as an essential function of analysis, we are left with only maternal containment, in the context of which we may be misled into thinking that the patient’s pain is a failure of containment, rather than a sign that it may be succeeding.


  • 1 “No modification” is less revealing than it might appear. I once asked Bion if he ever answered a patient’s question—a hot issue in those days of debate about “modifications of analytic technique”. He replied that he did whatever he thought might help the analysis. This was typical Bion. What appeared to be an answer to my question was really no answer, but rather a response that helped me focus clearly on my question without answering it.
  • 2 As I indicated above, the theory has since found wide application to a number of problems in psychoanalysis. Since my aim is to identify what is essential in Bion’s theory, I will for the time being ignore these later developments, not because they are unimportant, but because they would distract from my main goal.
  • 3 See www.thcgazctte.co.uk/London/issue/30801/supplement/8439
  • 4 James Strachcy (Strachcy, 1934) holds that what he called a mutative interpretation is always a crisis for the analyst. I believe that my trepidation was a sign that this interpretation was a mutative one.


Wilfred Bion. Clinical Seminars and Other Works. Karnac, London, 1994.

Wilfred R. Bion, Learning from Experience. Jason Aronson, Lanham, MD, 1994.

Sigmund Freud. Findings, ideas, problems. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Rbrfes of Sigmund Freud, 23:299, 1939.

Melanie Klein. A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic-depressive states. In The Writings of Melanie Klein, Volume 1: Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, 1921-1945, 262-289. The Hogarth Press, London, 1935 [1975].

Melanie Klein. Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states. In The Writings of Melanie Klein, Volume 1: Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, 1921—1945, 344-369. The Hogarth Press, London, 1940 [1975].

Melanie Klein. The mutual influences in the development of ego and id. In The Writings of Melanie Klein, Volume 3: Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963, 57—60. The Hogarth Press, London, 1952 [1975].

John Steiner. On Seeing and Being Seen. Routledge, Abingdon, 2011.

James Strachey. The nature of the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 50:275, 1934.

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