Margaret Mahler

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Margaret Schönberger Mahler (May 10, 1897 – October 2, 1985) was a Hungarian physician who focused on child psychiatry, becoming interested and proficient in psychoanalysis. Although her fundamental interest was in normal child development, she spent much of her time with severely disturbed children, which led her to research the development of the concept of self. Mahler is best known for having developed the Separation-Individuation theory of child development, as well as the concept of object constancy.

Margaret had a difficult childhood, rejected by her mother, and later suffered as a result of Anti-Semitism, fleeing Europe for the United States when the Nazis came to power. However, she was able to turn her personal difficulties and experiences to positive results, as they provided her with valuable insight into the process of psychological development and the needs of children in order to mature into healthy adults. Her insights still inspire and inform many today.


Margaret Schönberger was born on May 10, 1897, to Gustav Schönberger and Eugenia Weiner-Schönberger, an intellectual and wealthy Jewish family in Sopron, a small town Hungary, located on the border of Austria near Vienna. Margaret had a close relationship with her father, but her relationship with her mother was distant and conflicted (Mazet 2005). Her mother was unhappy and ignored Margaret—"she had as little to do with me as she could" (Stepansky 1992). When her sister, Suzanne, was born however, she was welcomed and loved by her mother, aggravating Margaret's feelings of maternal rejection:

I believe it was my observations of my mother's loving interaction with my sister—and the way it contrasted with her interaction with me—that guided me into pediatrics and psychoanalysis and, more specifically, into subsequent investigation of the mother-infant dual unity" (Stepansky 1992).

Margaret's father, the Chief Public Health Official for their district, encouraged her to excel in mathematics and sciences, treating her almost like a son. After completing the High School for Daughters, she attended Vaci Utcai Gimnazium in Budapest even though it was unusual at the time for a woman to continue formal education. During her time at the gymnasium she met the influential Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, became fascinated by the concept of the unconscious, and was encouraged to read Sigmund Freud (Coates 2003).

In 1916, Margaret began art history studies at the University of Budapest, but she transfered to medicine in January, 1917. Three semesters later, she began medical training at the University of Munich, but was forced to leave because of German Anti-Semitism. In the spring of 1920, she transferred to the University of Jena. There she worked at a clinic for children and began to realize how important play and love were for growing infants, both mentally and physically.

Margaret graduated cum laude in 1922. She left for Vienna after graduation, having chosen Austrian citizenship after World War I allowing her to practice medicine there. She found the Austrian practice of pediatrics unempathetic and cold, with the children treated in a "detached, sterile ways" (Stepansky 1992). In Vienna, she met August Aichorn and Karl Abraham, and attended seminars by Anna Freud, which led her to apply to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute for training as an analyst.

In 1926, she began analysis training with Helene Deutsch. Deutsch was completely against the idea, but with encouragement from Ferenczi, she accepted. However, the analysis was a failure. After subsequent attempts with other analysts seven years later, in 1933, Margaret was finally accepted as an analyst. However, the same year brought grief, when her long time friend and inspiration, Ferenczi, passed away.

In Vienna, she was very active, attending seminars and publishing papers in the Journal of Psychoanalytic Pedagogy. During this time she met Paul Mahler, a businessman with a doctorate in chemistry. They married in 1936.

Following the Nazis' rise to power, the couple moved to Britain and then, in 1938, to the United States. The transition was difficult, as they had little in the way of money and they spoke even less English. They had no children and Paul struggled to make a living; the couple divorced in 1953 (Ware and Braukman 2004).

After receiving a New York medical license, Mahler set up private practice in a basement and began to rebuild her clientèle. In 1940, she presented a paper on child analysis, which led to immediate recognition and a position at Columbia University and an appointment as consultant to the children's service at the Psychiatric Institute.

During this time, she begged her parents to come to the United States. However, her father died a month before Hungary was invaded, and although her sister Suzanne survived as a hidden person her mother died in Auschwitz concentration camp. On hearing this news Mahler became depressed and turned to her friend and colleague Edith Jacobson for solace (Stepansky 1992). She entered further analysis with her, and their discussions while Jacobson worked on her classic The Self and the Object World (1964) greatly influenced Mahler's thinking and research.

Mahler then accepted an invitation to teach in Philadelphia, at the Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute. This time was "one of my pride and joys, …one of the most gratifying of my activities and the most lasting contribution" (Coates 2003).

A turning point occurred in Mahler's career when she and Manuel Furer opened the Masters Children's Center in Manhattan in 1957. This was where Mahler developed her tripartite treatment model in which the mother was an active participant in the child's therapy. She recognized that the study of disturbed children could not reveal everything about the process of normal development, and in collaboration with Furer, Fred Pine, Annie Bergman, and others she began her most creative research. Their numerous publications, culminating in the 1975 publication of The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, revolutionized psychoanlytic developmental theory.

Mahler received a number of awards during her career. Barnard College, at its 1980 commencement ceremonies, awarded Mahler its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. She remained intensively involved in her work until her death at age 88.

Margaret Mahler died on October 2, 1985, in New York. Her ashes were buried beside her father's grave in the Jewish Cemetery in Sopron, Hungary.


Margaret Mahler began her career working with young disturbed children. Her early publications concerned tic disorders (Mahler 1949), and she suggested that severely disturbed children suffered from psychosis, a controversial diagnosis at the time. She rejected the contemporary view that inadequate mothering was responsible for autism (Mazet 2005). She also developed a tripartite treatment model, in which the mother participated in the treatment of the child and was present during the initial therapy sessions (Coates 2003).

Mahler emphasized the importance of the environment on the child. She was especially interested in mother-infant duality and carefully documented the impact of early separations of children from their mothers. Her ground-breaking theory of Separation-Individuation, given credence by Mahler's own relationship with her father, was her most important contribution to the development of psychoanalysis (Bond 2008). Her work on Object relations theory was significant in the development of ego psychology in the United States.


Mahler developed her theory of the Separation-Individuation process through observations of the interactions between young children and their mothers. Her experiences working with disturbed children had given her the idea to observe mother-infant pairs in a naturalistic setting, recording all the details of their interactions. She also included participant observers in her studies, all long before such observational research became popular (Ware and Braukman 2004).

Her research became focused on how normal infants develop a healthy relationship with their mothers (or primary caregivers). She had hypothesized that disturbed children had failed to recognize their mother as the "beacon of orientation," establishing a symbiotic relationship with them that laid the foundation for the development of separate self and object representations. Normal development requires that relationship.

Her Separation-Individuation theory, most clearly expressed in The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975), proposed that the psychological self develops through an unfolding process that contains a number of phases:

Normal Autistic Phase

The Normal Autistic Phase takes place during the first few weeks of life. The infant is detached and self absorbed, spending most of the time sleeping. In order to encourage a healthy childhood, the mother or father needs to be available to lovingly meet the baby's needs and introduce tender, caring interaction. Mahler later abandoned this phase, based on new findings from her infant research (Coates 2003).

Normal Symbiotic Phase

The second phase, the Normal Sybiotic Phase, lasts from the first month to about 5 months of age. The child becomes aware of the mother but there is no sense of individuality. The infant feels one with the mother, and that there is a barrier between them and the rest of the world. Positive stimuli (such as cuddling, smiling, and engaged attention) as well as relief of discomfort (prompt feeding, changing of soiled diapers, providing an appropriate sleep environment) all help the infant to develop a trust that needs will be met, building a basis for security and confidence.

Separation-Individuation Phase

Mahler described the third phase as one of Separation-Individuation, and it marks the end of the Normal Symbiotic Phase. During this new phase, the child develops limits and differentiation between the infant and mother (separation), later developing a sense of self (individuation). There are four sub-phases in the Separation-Individuation phase:

  1. Differentiation (5 to 10 months): Infants cease to be ignorant of the differentiation between themselves and the caregiver. They show a greater interest in the outside world and show the first signs of separation anxiety. Infants feel most comfortable exploring from within the safe confines of their mother's or father's arms.
  2. Practicing (10 to 16 months): Brought about by the infant's ability to crawl and then walk freely, the infant begins to explore actively, becoming more distant from the mother—although only briefly, returning often to receive extra support and comfort. Babies will often want to keep the caregiver within eyesight.
  3. Rapprochement (16 to 24 months): Mahler referred to this as "ambitendency" and explained that this behavior is representative of a toddler's sometimes opposing desires and needs. It is during these months that children first get a real sense that they are individuals, separate from their caregiver—which is both an exciting and frightening discovery. Mahler noticed that toddlers became slightly more "low key" when their caregiver was not around; but when they felt comfortable, they felt free to explore the world by imitating adults and desiring toys and objects that others have (sometimes taking them by force).
  4. Consolidation and object constancy (24 to 36 months): The child becomes more comfortable leaving their caregiver, allowing for the ego of the caregiver and the child to go their separate ways.

Object constancy

Another major breakthrough made by Mahler was the concept of "object constancy." (This should not be confused with Jean Piaget's object permanence—the infant's developing realization that simply because something cannot be seen, it does not cease to exist.)

Mahler's object constancy means that the child begins to recognize that other people have separate identities. This, then, leads to the realization on the part of the child that they, too, have their own unique identity—the formation of ego.

The task of the fourth sub-phase of Separation-Individuation is two-fold: (1) the achievement of a definite individuality and (2) the attainment of a certain degree of object constancy. As far as the self is concerned there is a far-reaching structuralization of the ego and there are signs of internalization of paternal demands, indicating the formative precursors of the superego.

The establishment of affective (emotional) object constancy depends up on the gradual internalization of a constant, positively cathected inner image of the mother. This permits the child to function separately in familiar surroundings, despite moderate degrees of tension and discomfort.

For Mahler, the attainment of self-identity is a process, and a life-long one. In fact, complete autonomy is never fully attained. Mahler viewed the Rapprochement sub-phase of separation-individuation as "the mainspring of man's eternal struggle against both fusion and isolation" (Akhtar and Kramer 1997). Dependency on the environment does decrease, but the individual is always dependent on the presence of or interaction with others to some degree to maintain a stable sense of self (Shane and Shane 1989).


Although later research in child development placed a greater emphasis on the innate capacities of newborns, Mahler's theory remains influential. The significance of her work, particularly the concept of separation-individuation in normal psychological development has been considerable:

[Mahler's] theories, both conceptual and clinical, form the underpinnings of a modern relational psychoanalytic theory of development. …Mahler’s clinical work, though not presented originally to illustrate dynamic systems theory, is nevertheless entirely consistent with a contemporary dynamic systems perspective. Any current reading of psychoanalytic developmental theory makes it clear that dynamic systems theory is reshaping the way we think about and are rethinking development (Coates 2003).

This is not to say that her observations and theories have been confirmed by all. In fact, both her contemporaries and later researchers observed and interpreted differently the nature of the infant. While Mahler saw the newborn as completely detached from the world, Kohut, for example, saw the infant as both observationally and functionally aware of its surroundings (Shane and Shane 1989).

Nonetheless, Mahler's ideas have continued to inspire and inform. Her separation-individuation motif has been found valuable to illuminate all adult development—from the turmoil of adolescence, the goal-oriented vigor of young adulthood, the contemplative anguish of midlife, to the wisdom of being a grandparent in old age (Akhatar and Kramer 1997).

Major works

  • Mahler, Margaret S. 1949. Psychoanalytic Evaluation of Tics. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 4: 279-310.
  • Mahler, Margaret S. 1959. Autism and Symbiosis, Two Extreme Disturbances of Identity. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 39: 77-82.
  • Mahler, Margaret S. 1968. On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation. Volume 1: Infantile and Early Contributions. Madison, CT: International Universities Press. ISBN 0823637808.
  • Mahler, Margaret S. 1970. On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation. Volume 2: Separation-Individuation. Basic Books.
  • Mahler, Margaret S. Fred Pine, and Anni Bergman [1975] 2000. The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0465095544.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Akhtar, Salman, and Selma Kramer (eds.). 1997. The Seasons of Life: Separation-Individuation Perspectives (Margaret S. Mahler Symposium Series). Jason Aronson. ISBN 0765700557.
  • Bond, Alma Halbert. 2008. Margaret Mahler: A Biography of the Psychoanalyst. McFarland. ISBN 978-0786433551.
  • Coates, Susan. W. 2003. John Bowlby and Margaret S. Mahler: Their Lives and Theories. Retrieved June 30, 2008.
  • Engler, Barbara. 2005. Personality Theories, 7th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0618496629.
  • Jacobson, Edith. 1964. The Self and the Object World. Madison, CT: International Universities Press. ISBN 0823660605.
  • Mazet, Philippe. 2005. Margaret Mahler-Schönberger. International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. The Gale Group, Inc. Retrieved October 23, 2008.
  • Mitchell, Stephen. A., and Margaret J. Black. 1995. Freud and Beyond. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465014054.
  • Shane, Estelle, and Morton Shane. 1989. Mahler, Kohut, and Infant Research: Some Comparisons Retrieved October 16, 2008. In Self Psychology: Comparisons and Contrasts Douglas Detrick, Susan Detrick, and Arnold Goldberg (eds). Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press. ISBN 0881630772.
  • Schur, Max (ed.). 1965. Drives, Affects, Behavior. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
  • Stepansky, Paul E. 1992. The Memoirs of Margaret S. Mahler. The Analytic Press. ISBN 978-0881631685.
  • Ware, Susan, and Stacy Braukman (eds.). 2004. Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press. ISBN 067401488X.


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