William Ronald Fairbairn was an early 20th century psychiatrist who played a key role in developing object relations theory.

Professional Life

William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn was born on August 11, 1889 in Edinburgh, Scotland into a family with strict, Protestant morals. He attended the Merchiston Castle School and later went on to study divinity and Greek at Edinburgh University.

After serving in the First World War, Fairbairn developed an interest in medicine and psychotherapy; he had a particular interest in war neuroses. He earned his MD in 1927 and began teaching psychology at the Edinburgh University. In 1931, he was accepted as an associate member of the British Psychoanalytical Society, and by 1938, he was a full member.

Fairbairn was a student of object relations and was active in the Independent Group of the British Psychoanalytical Society, a sector that focused on the relationships that exist between people, rather than on the relationships people hold with themselves.

Fairbairn's son, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, was a well-known British politician. 

Contribution to Psychology

Fairbairn published many articles and books, including From Instinct to Self and Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. The latter represents the basis of Fairbairn’s theories and is divided into theoretical and clinical sections. The book contains three distinct parts that embody Fairbairn’s views on object relations. In the first part, Fairbairn discusses his theories on psychosis, schizoid personalities, psychoneurosis, and the dynamic structure of object relationships. The second part of his book is a review of clinical studies, including themes of religion, grief, and physical impairment. In the third part of the book, Fairbairn discusses a range of topics, including politics, war, religion, and sexuality.

Fairbairn's most lasting contribution to psychology was the development of objects relations theory. While Otto Rank originally coined the term, Fairbairn further developed and popularized the concept. In object relations theory, people tend to have relationships in adulthood that re-enact or build upon elements of early childhood. For example, a child who grew up in an abusive household might marry an abusive partner. A similar person might move to the other extreme and become so fearful of abuse that even the briefest expression of anger leads to terror.

Fairbairn emphasized that when a child's basic needs are not met, this may lead to introverted, standoffish behavior and the turning away from others. Instead, the child relies on a fantasy life to meet his or her need—a process Fairbairn termed internal object relations.

Fairbairn also helped to develop the concept of splitting, which is now a key feature of mental health conditions such as borderline personality. According to Fairbairn, children who have neglectful parents separate the parents into two entities—the good parent, who sometimes responds to the child's needs, and the non-responsive parent, who neglects the child. This leads to splitting, which occurs when a child can't feel ambivalence or nuance. Instead, the child thinks in black and white terms, seeing the parent, and in many cases the self, as either all good or all bad.