Split-Object Representations – Implications for Interpersonal Attachment and Bonding

The development of the self is known to be quite contingent on the multiple inputs from others, particularly during the first seven to nine years of our development. We cannot develop a cohesive sense of mind and self without ascertaining the minds and selves of others. This is particularly true of those who are significant others such as our primary caretakers.

The impact of relative social isolation is evident in a number of investigations. In this article, I will cite a few of them and present, from my clinical view, the anatomy of the construction or deconstruction of a self. I will then relate these dynamics to attachment and bonding to others.

In regards to social isolation, one of the earliest observations pertains to Victor, also known as the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Jean Itard, a French physician, recorded his observations and findings of this twelve year old boy. Victor evidenced severe psychosocial impairment due to serious psychosocial deprivation. Many of his deficits persisted despite later psychosocial enrichment. Davis documents the lives of Anna and Isabelle, two girls, who in their first six years, “received a minimum of human care.” Davis’ findings mirror almost exactly, those of Itard and Victor. There are other investigations of extreme isolation that I do not cover here. I will explore less extreme examples than these.

Based on my forty-plus years of clinical experience, I’ve synthesized several paradigms which illuminate some of the critical elements of self development. One is the split-object representations. These representations are introjected over time across early encounters with those who are significant to us; and they consist of three core elements: self, other, and emotional imprinting. These are described in the following depiction:

Split Object Representations

Self Emotional Imprint Other
Good (+,+) Good
Good (+,–) Bad
Bad (–,+) Good
Bad (–,–) Bad

The first configuration consistently generates a secure attachment; and what I refer to as a prosocial global personality orientation (GPO). The second produces an insecure attachment, an avoidant subtype, and an asocial GPO. The third results also in an insecure attachment and an asocial GPO as well. The final configuration produces a disorganized attachment, a psychotic and/or a rage-aggressive GPO.

Taking a closer look into the how the above attachments are generated, I use two additional paradigms. The first is the construction of a self; the second is the deconstruction of a self. The construction consists of six ordered sequences: differentiation of cells leading to the differentiation of selves; individuation; seperateness; leaving home; and, for most, the replacement of the family-of-origin (FOO) with the family-of-choice (FOC).

Clinically, we know that biological teratogens can interfere with normative biopsychosocial development; and so do psychosocial teratogens. So the final paradigm addresses the presence of psychosocial toxins, in the form of multiple abuses in the earliest years of life: the deconstruction of a self. The ordered sequences consist of dynamics that are increasingly harmful, and result from early interactions with others. They are: invalidations, leading to depersonalizations, leading to dehumunizations, leading to mortification. I refer to this fourth sequence as psychosocial death. The final stage results in suicide and sometimes homicide before the suicide.

To illustrate the above processes and dynamics, I show students and trainees ABC’s Primetime televised episode of Joseph and Jonathan Foster. These twins were adopted at a very early age by Lisa Foster. These boys demonstrate normative development until around the age of seven. Over the next five to seven years, Joseph and Jonathan show escalating aggression and violence, interestingly enough, mostly confined to the home environment. After the index ABC report, the boys are admitted, free of charge, to a residential treatment facility in Pennsylvania. The family lives in Florida. Within nine months of care, the boys are successfully discharged back to their mother and her boyfriend. Within a matter of weeks, the boys demonstrate substantial regression and agree to be taped for the entire world to see.

We then see with searing and disturbing detail, many of the paradigms and dynamics presented above in action before our very eyes. A judge describes this family as “dysfunctional to say the least.” I consider this family to be toxic!

In closing, ultimately, psychotherapy/counseling can repair some of the attachment fallout created by protracted and toxic adversities. In situations of extreme isolation, many of the deficits are irreversible, sadly.


Ainsworth MDS, Blehar MC, Walters E, Wall S. Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum. (1978).

Davis K. Extreme Isolation of a Child. American Journal of Sociology 3(5):432-437. (1940 and 1947).

Goffman E. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Anchor. (1961).

Lane H. The Wild Boy of Averyron. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. (1977).

Image via luxorphoto / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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