The difficult art of being together (or to break up)

Michael Balint

The difficult art of being together (or to break up)

Luis Fernando Santos


No self-help preacher feels any embarrassment in talking about endings. Dates, marriages, jobs, ideas, erotic relations—all that sort of things with which a subject relates herself and psychoanalysis calls objects[1]—come to an end. We are finite, and all of us are rationally aware of this, at least of the astounding potential ending of everything, what is located somewhere in a timeline. Life itself is a model of finitude.

How can such a down-to-earth situation, typical of all mortals, a so much debated subject—from quackery to philosophy—cause so many disasters whenever it shows up? Why aren’t we able to let the objects go, instead we transmute years, or even decades, of love, affection, and support, into hate, indifference, and vengeance?

This article is an attempt to think over these questions, to enrich them—never to answer them—in the light of Michael Balint’s seminal work Thrills and Regressions (1959). Balint’s book presents a radically original approach to the objectal relations, looking at them from two basic positions which begin in the toddler’s years and, crystallized, they may remain in the adult years, generating anxiety, anguish, and turning many of us, read as patients, into slaves within an archaic objectal relation.

Sharp and pointed objects

Balint’s research begins in the prosaic funfairs, or amusement parks, places he believed could be found anywhere in the world. He brilliantly notes that those spaces “offer satisfaction for the primitive instincts on an equally primitive level” (Balint, 1959:20), in games such as strength tests or ball games, for instance, one game in which balls are used as projectiles to shoot down towers made of cans (this last game is quite common in Brazil, with the use of air guns). This primitive violence is allowed in such places, and it’s also rewarded with special prizes and treats.

However, here, the part of Balint’s analysis of the funfairs that really interests us are the toys, which cause thrills, such as the Viking boats and roller coasters. Balint’s attention is focused on two phenomena. The first has to do with the fact that the pleasure given by those toys comes from a well-defined sequence: “(a) some amount of conscious fear, or at least an awareness of real external danger; (b) a voluntary and intentional exposing of oneself to this external danger and to the fear aroused by it; (c) while having the more or less confident hope that the fear can be tolerated and mastered, the danger will pass, and that one will be able to return unharmed to safety” (Balint, 1959:23). It is important to remark here, as the author does in his work—even though it is not the purpose of this article—the similarity noticeable in those three steps described above with the sexual act: an increase in arousal and risk, a conscious exposition to danger, and a comeback to the ground through orgasm, that is to say, one of the acts that, according to Freud, contradicted the pleasure principle, i.e. the increase in excitation and discomfort is felt as pleasurable and deliberately provoked[2].

Balint also puts emphasis on another noteworthy issue: the fact that for some people those toys are a source of intense pleasure, while some other people can’t even think about feeling such thrills and chill down their spine. Let us bear in mind these two (apparently) incompatible reactions—they are the very base of Balint’s core thinking in this work.

Balint’s bet, then, is that the child’s world might help us better understand the existence of those two surprising reactions. The author retrieves archaic meanings of the word ‘object’ in order to underscore a nuance that in Portuguese is very well conveyed by the verb ‘to object’, i.e., ‘to create resistance’, ‘to run counter’, ‘to dislike’. He recovers yet another archaic meaning of the word ‘object’, which complements the first: ‘something firm and resistant, pointed, and sharpened. All this so that we think on the baby: what would be her reactions when facing inhibiting and sharpened (dangerous) objects, which, occasionally, might crop up?

On a manifest disagreement with Freud (and Melanie Klein), Balint does not believe in the existence of the primary narcissism[3], that is, the baby’s unrestricted investment on herself, during the initial months of life, in order that she thinks she is the only being in the world, and the creator of all the objects. Balint sees this early world as an objectal world, but in it the objects, in an unrestrained way, meet the baby’s demands. The objects hold her, breastfeed her, support her (in the physical sense), support her existence in all her fragility.

Let’s make now a synthesis of these two propositions: what would be the baby’s possible reactions when she realizes that the objects in the world do not exist only to serve her? When she realizes that the objects fail, that they have their own lives and wishes, worst yet, that they are cutting, pointed, and threatening? Heading straightforwardly to the answer, there are two reactions, both hallucinatory, illusory: the baby either cling to the object in order not to let it escape, or she creates mechanisms so that she can live without any object at all.

The two basic positions

Balint gives so much importance to his discovery that he proposes two new words to describe each one of the baby’s responses, sometimes also present on our adult patients; two positions which are reactions to the discovery of the autonomous objects in the world.

In the first case, the proposed word is ocnophilia, which comes from a Greek root that means ‘cling to’, ‘stand back’, ‘hesitate’ (it is implicit here that all is due to fear, shame, or pity, in relation to an object – Balint: 1959, 32). This is the baby who doesn’t like to ride a rollercoaster (metaphorically, please): by figuring out that the objects won’t assist her unrestrictedly to the rest of her life, she fantasizes this very possibility, the possibility of clinging to the objects, whether they like it or not.

            Here we quote Balint a little longer:

“The actual relation to the objects is very primitive. Quite often we find obvious signs that the relation does not go further than the part that is clung to, i.e. it does not necessarily include the whole object. ‘A drowning man will clutch at a straw’ admirably describes this attitude (…). The reaction of an ocnophilic man in the face of fear shows perhaps most clearly the persistence of part objects in an adult.” [4]

            That is, to the ocnophilic individual, the space among the objects is despairing, threatens to annihilate, an untold emptiness. Only with her hands firmly clung to the objects she can live and mitigate her anguish.

            In the second case, we have another situation, this one coming up from the same problem—the unbearable encounter with the cutting, pointed, and independent objects in the world—and it’s called philobatism. Balint delves into the archaic meanings of this word’s root, however, for the contemporary speaker, it’s more productive if we draw a parallel with the word acrobat. This is the baby who hallucinates that she doesn’t need any object, that she can live despite of them; put differently, someone who lives better without the objects. She trusts on the environment and on herself, and she feels that the threat derives from the objects which come close to her. It is a whole world “structured by safe distance and sight” (Balint: 1959,34).[5]

            The philobat relies on the world, on the space among the objects; these are threatening, especially when she needs to negotiate with an object that imposes itself, that opposes. Nonetheless, she doesn’t despise the object: Balint recalls two very typical philobatic words: consideration and touch. The philobat takes care of her objects. As a matter of fact, she changes them so that they match her design—and that’s why she cares for them—that is to say, she turns the objects into equipment, into gear, the only thing she actually needs. The philobat doesn’t need objects for themselves, at least not any one in particular (Balint: 1959, 35).

            To name these two new positions as a consequence of the baby’s primordial view, and then, to question something on Freud’s and Melanie Klein’s theories, does not seem to be a shy move. And the energy for such courage seems to derive from Balint’s conviction that by thinking the subjects/patients from the oconophil’s and the philobat’s standpoints is something really powerful.

            It doesn’t seem to be too hard to agree with the author: everything that is thought over here refers back to primary and very defining issues. The traumatic encounter with the independent world, and with the consequent question “and now, what am I going to do if the world refuses itself to attend, in an absolute way, to all my desires?”

            The two proposed solutions are the ocnophilia and the philobatism, both unsatisfying, with their pros and cons, so to speak, and both become clearer if we take into account the logic of the skills, the abilities that each position develops.

            The ocnophil has the objects as objective (consider the same root in the word) and develops skills aiming at “an efficient way of clinging to and perhaps (…) a costly method to be accepted by her object as a kind of clinging parasite”[6].  It is a technique, if we recall its hallucinatory characteristic, relatively effective. The oconophil’s foible can be located in the fact that “the real aim can never be achieved by clinging. The real aim is to be held by the object and not to cling desperately to it” (Balint: 1959,34).

            For that matter, the philobat’s world is quite different. Since things don’t get too much difficult, she, the philobat/acrobat, feels immensely safe, soaring the skies. Her risk is found in the objects, which cannot satisfy her, and are, therefore, dangerous. She finds safety in relation to the objects by turning them into equipment which is always ready to serve her in her acrobatics, so they are very well cared for by the philobat.

            Now, of course, given the primitive characteristics of these two positions, it is inevitable, for the author and for us, to speak of two feelings equally primitive, and connected, such as love and hate.

Love and hate

            Once again, Balint insist on restating that he doesn’t see the two positions as anta-gonistic ones—that’s why he doesn’t choose antonyms to describe them. Both positions are found in serious patients (from the area of the basic fault, a theme that would be advanced in his following book, and isn’t a topic in this article) and a high dose of any of these conditions might be more or less pathological.

            Taking into consideration our initial questions, the important thing here is to think the non-serious cases, and how those two positions irrigate adult relations in their separations from the objects. Once the author himself provides the answer, sure and evasive, for what would be a healthy situation (“both these attitudes are more or less pathological. Health is obviously not dependent on the ingredients, but on their combination in suitable proportions” – Balint: 1959,89), here, we intend to freely comment Balint’s ideas on ocnophilia and philobatism in relation to love and hate.

            We think that these positions aren’t completely fixed. Moreover, we believe that they can be leveraged, summoned up by the relations. Someone very philobat calls for the ocnophilic defense on the other, and vice-versa.

Both of them love and hate, immensely and simultaneously, their objects. The ocnophil depends on them, the objects, and love them unconditionally, till the moment on which they bring about a minimum frustration (what is almost unavoidable, according to Balint). Love and hate are directed at a partial trait in the object (“I love her, but some things just make me feel much hate”, a comment we usually hear in the clinic), everything always quite intense. “The object, however kindly attuned to the subject, has nevertheless its own life, and must occasionally go its own way” The partial object becomes, then, without even knowing, of “no use whatever, no good at all” (Balint: 1959,33, both).

The philobat hates her object from the beginning. In her illusion, they are threatening: they try to establish a relationship without the exchange currency of reliance. The vicious and independent objects endanger her reliable world, her narcissism. Then, the philobat objectifies them (in the usual sense of the term itself), turning them into gear so that she can explore the world (a world of meaning, please, for it’s not necessary to enter a plane for that purpose). When the object goes away, it is as if the philobat were a diver left without an oxygen cylinder, her so precious and well-kept oxygen cylinder. Hate comes up due to the treason against her care and love.

When one meets the other: “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (2016)                      


            At this point, we have already managed to figure out how bombastic would be the encounter (in any relation, not only a romantic one) between a ocnophil and a philobat. Perhaps, if they were completely opposite to one another, they would tend not to meet each other, they would be blind to each other’s presence. Indeed, however, our observations have pointed to the contrary of this deduction, to the “blind” attraction bringing them together—in the same fashion sadistic and masochistic people, who also are not opposite, tend to attract each other).

            From that unconscious attraction, a powerful relation springs up, always ambiguous, because both sides seduce and dissimilate their actual intentions, with intrinsic differences.

            Let’s start by the tragic side: the situation on which the two defenses fit themselves and the relation “lasts”. We have a couple with an extremely desert psychic and affective life: an unquestioned philobat, a prisoner of her own narcissism, without any truthful relation with a total object, and a hooked ocnophil, sucking somebody else’s ego and narcissism, wholly subjected.

            This relation reminds us of the mythological story of Echo and Narcissus. On one hand, we have the ocnophilic nymph Echo, fall in love with the gorgeous Narcissus, but she’s unable to say anything of herself, cursed to only repeat her (supposed) lover’s words. On the other hand, we have the philobatic Narcissus, amazed at his own image, the very ability to live only to and with himself, without any external object. We all know his fate.

            Less tragic, we believe, is the situation on which the relation “doesn’t work out”. It seems less tragic because the defenses aren’t so plastered here, the subjects don’t live only for them. There is some chance of flexibilization, some chance of interference on the perverse matching of Echo’s and Narcissus’ defenses, by the other instances of the psychic system. In order to ponder a little bit more on the likely outcome of such a relation, we have chosen, in the light of Balint’s ideas (and, also, tapping into our own experience), the film Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), directed by James Bobin, whose characters are based on Lewis Caroll’s famous work.

             Alice is philobatic; both in Bobin’s film, as well as in the previous one, “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), directed by Tim Burton, and she also is philobatic in Caroll’s books, on which the films are freely based.

            In Through the Looking Glass, Alice is a ship’s captain (is there anything more philobatic than that?); she feels confident, happy, blissed in the sea—but not at home. More than confident in her ship’s crew, Alice feels safe at sea. When she comes back home, however, she arrives at the Underworld and reunites with her friends: then, she has de cope with the Mad Hatter, who is crazier than ever, experiencing hallucinations in which his family, dead long ago, is alive again.

            Now, what does Alice do? She decides to have an encounter with Time itself (surprisingly played by Sacha Baron Cohen, “Borat”) so that she can go back to the past, in order to understand what happened to her friend’s family, and then rescue them (philobats are a bit, as the saying goes, “to the friends, everything; to the enemies, the law”). Her friends from the Underland warn her against the plan because they consider it dangerous (more than that: it is impossible!), but they had given the idea to the ‘right’ person, to a lover of thrills—Alice.

            The adventure worth seeing for the scenic plastic beauty, and for the mixture with Caroll’s poetry, but we already know its ending: Alice gets what she wants, of course (though she almost unleashes a cataclysm in that world’s space-time). The most important thing is that she never hesitates, she just goes ahead and she’ll always go. The Underland is her friendly expanses—safe and adventuresome surroundings—as Balint would describe it. Over there, Alice feels safe, to the point of forgetting the conflict she left behind in the world beyond the looking glass, a conflict with her ex-fiancé, a frankly ocnophilic character.

            Hamish Ascot, the ex-fiancé—who she had abandoned at the altar in the previous film—is, undoubtedly, an ocnophilic type. He is clumsy in the story (we should remember, however, that the ocnophils may be very seductive), Hamish see, in his arranged marriage with the beautiful Alice, a way to find his place in the world. For that purpose, he doesn’t get upset with using his family’s wealth and reputation in order to go through with the marriage, after all, as Balint taught us, ocnophils just want that everything looks like a good deal.

            In Through the Looking Glass, Hamish, already married to another woman—who is less interesting than Alice—is clearly uncomfortable for having been left in the altar. After the three years in which Alice had been sailing, Hamish was prepared to welcome her: at her arrival, she finds out that her mother’s house has been repossessed by Hamish’s company, however, he is willing to swiftly return the property in exchange of Alice’s boat, which had belonged to his father.

            Alice’s surprised and almost nonchalant reaction (the repossession of the house and of the boat are the first things she finds out in the film, and she doesn’t bother to solve such problems until the final minutes) gives us crucial hints to understand the typical reactions in this clash between ocnophils and philobats.

            Going straight to the point: the philobat, by realizing her loss of the object, she feels naïve, absent-minded, almost childish; the oconophil, by her turn, believes that she was betrayed, becomes hateful and revengeful. She senses forlornness and annihilation knocking on the door. A philobatic person feels as if a frost, in the middle of the night, had destroyed her plantation which was tenderly cultivated. Quoting Balint: “for all the skills on which the philobatic conquest of objects and of the world are based are functions of the integrated ego” (Balint:1959,86). In other words, the philobat doesn’t fear the loss and leaving of the objects, she’s reasonably complete, and knows that she’ll remain that way, because she has the skills needed to recover. The ocnophil sees her own existence as if it was threatened by the object that leaves and, as a consequence, she gets resentful. Therefore, she takes revenge.

            She takes revenge, in the place, of the philobat who has left her: in her narcissistic base. It is as if, unconsciously, she was able to know where it hurts: Hamish exacts a revenge on Alice by seizing her mother’s house, as well as Alice’s vessel, perhaps her most important equipment, a symbol of her skill to navigate around the world, of her feeling safe and alive in tempestuous waters.

            Stepping aside from the film a little, we reassert that everyone suffers this (dis) encounter if they didn’t know how to flexibilize their philobatic and ocnophilic defenses. The difference is, again, that the philobat feels herself amazed, while the oconophil feels herself betrayed and full of vengeful rage. “Aware of” movements of the relation, the oconophil hits at the right spot: the philobatic opponent’s narcissistic nucleus, the self-invested and naïve belief that everything would turn out well, no matter what. The philobat gets puzzled and astonished, as if someone had stricken a foul blow; with her self-esteem, quite lowered, she thinks that she had lived gullibly, a history that was evading her, since long ago.

            One more contribution of ours: because she is the colder observer of the relation, the ocnophil’s revenge, besides it being accurate in the narcissistic core, it has one more feature. It comes about by the overcoming of the philobat in the very same field on which she believes to be most skillful, as if there was an inversion in the relation master-disciple. Studied from the movements more dearly to the philobat (who, naively, doesn’t perceive), the ocnophil secretly trains her skills in that field until she is ready for the final blow. To provide this upgrade in the philobat, an upgrade in the maximum field of her “expertise” is a sort of writ of emancipation to an alleged freedom (alleged because always in opposition/relation to the philobat). It is as if Hamish tried to be the most cherished human being in the Underland, or the best ship’s master (something he pursues, somehow, by declaring the end of Alice’s travels—he “knows” better than she where to invest money on navigations).

            Once again, both of them suffer, but survive. The fact is that Hamish didn’t have Alice’s boat (and, if he had had, it would make any difference, for she would find another way out). He was left with his wife, consolation prize, and with his possessions, whereas Alice set sails, without ties, for a new sea voyage.




BALINT. Michael. The Basic Fault: Therapeutic aspects of regression. Brazilian translation by Francisco Franke Settineri. 2. ed. Editora Zagodoni. São Paulo, 2014

 BALINT. Michael. Thrills and Regressions. Reprinted 1987. London, 1959

FREUD, Sigmund. “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”. In: Sigmund Freud – Complete Work: standard Brazilian edition. Imago. Rio de Janeiro, 1996

ALICE in Wonderland. Directed by Tim Burton. United States/United Kingdom (2010).  Walt Disney Pictures

ALICE through the Looking Glass. Directed by James Bobin. United States (2016).  Walt Disney Studios


[1] – Cf. FREUD, 1905

[2]  – Freud advanced this thought in Fore-Pleasure Mechanisms, chapter 3 from Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) and later on in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924).

[3] – Michael Balint defines the idea of primary love in opposition to primary narcissism in the second part of The Basic Fault.