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Critique Of Mahler's Theory

Critiques of Mahler's theory of separationindividuation come from the fields of infant and attachment research (Lyons-Ruth 1991; Stern 1985). Infant research demonstrates that infants are prewired for relatedness from birth and do not experience an autistic or symbiotic phase. From birth infants experience a subjective sense of self and other from which experience is organized, structured, and restructured according to cognitive and affective developmental levels (Stern 1985). Attachment theorists also cast doubt upon the validity of the symbiotic phase, pointing to infants' readiness to interact from birth with evolutionary behaviors such as crying, sucking, and smiling that elicit the caregiver's attention and care. (Bowlby 1969). There are points of convergence between Mahler and attachment theorists. The concepts of internal working models and self-other representations both demonstrate how early relationships become internalized and form expectations of relationships in general (Main, Kaplan, Cassidy 1985). Similarly, both Mahler's concept of emotional refueling and Bowlby's notion of the secure base underscore the need for the caregiver's availability during exploratory behavior. They come to different conclusions, however, regarding behaviors seen from nine to eighteen months. Mahler sees the practicing and rapprochement phases as characterized by active separations, with ambivalence toward reunions with the caregiver as a threat to emerging autonomy. Attachment theorists, on the other hand, see this period as an increase in the awareness of and interest in the caregiver's availability during exploratory behaviors. Infants seek proximity to caregivers, as opposed to the clinging, ambivalence, and aggression described by Mahler. To attachment theorists these behaviors represent problematic interactions between infant and caregiver and characterize problems in the quality of the attachment (Lyons-Ruth 1991; Tyson and Tyson 1990).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsSeparation-Individuation - Precursors To Differentiation, The First Subphase: Differentiation, The Second Subphase: Practicing, Phase Three: Rapprochement