We start to explore kernberg’s ideas around the concept of Erotic desires being a sexual merger and symbolic fusion between the child and mother.

The concept of Eros and Libido is encapsulated in a drive, whilst something like sexual hunger or contact hunger is an instinct. With a dual drive theory where sexuality conflicts with aggression, representing the unconscious conflicts within the psychic structure

If we accept that psychic ideas or images are affected by discharges of drives, we can say the child will have innate, inborn dispositions (thresholds and tolerances) that affect the functioning of the developing Ego. Mental representations (images) of the drive or the memory of the idea are repressed if the parent (self-object) lacks attunement or has an impaired influence on development tasks and instinctive behavioural patterns. If the child can establish a positive affect connection with their mother during separation and individuation, they will eventually develop five stages of emotionally healthy relationships.

Mature love

  1. Conversion of sexual excitement into an erotic desire
  2. Development of tenderness that derives from the integration of libidinal and aggressively invested self.
  3. Healthy participation with others with the capacity for deep empathy with other’s identity
  4. Mature idealisation and deep commitment to other’s aims and ambitions
  5. Continued sexual object and superego investment.

Freud believed the id to be the primitive and instinctual part of the psyche containing intensely aggressive drives and internalised sexual object relations in conflict with the moral conscience of the superego. The ego operates as the mediator between conflicting desires and demands, creating a true reflection and interpretation of reality. With Eros and the libido being the primitive sexual affect state ranging from feelings of elation, rage, disgust and hatred, all of which can be activated to repress the libido’s expression.

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The healthy individual seeks.

  1. Longing for closeness with a mature boundary
  2. Identification with a partner’s sexual excitement
  3. The mutual expectation of a marital relationship
  4. Harmonious cultural expectations and integration
  5. Tenderness in the consolidation of differences, all good and all bad objects
  6. Tolerance of ambivalences in sexual roles.

When a child experiences healthy intimate bodily contact with the mother, where gratifying and longings are met, the core internalised world of fantasy, excitement and symbiosis, with a continuation of libidinal strivings, is established via the use of healthy aggression. If the symbiotic fusion with Mother fails at the initial stages of separation, the child longs and strives to fuse with another love object to reinforce/maintain initial oedipal trauma (injury) to keep the illusion of fusion in place. Narcissists can’t experience sexual excitement but often fleeting random manifestations of it with distancing between drives and aggression. The borderline remains searching for the idealised perfect partner, as the illusionary ideal parental image established in the false symbiosis to relieve separation anxiety, who will never fulfil the unconditional love the borderline demands. The ability to truly love the other arises through the neutralisation of the bad aspects of the object by reparation/integration, other than keeping the object whole by splitting it into good/bad aspects.

Love and Oedipus complex

The child’s heightened frustration with their mother leads to them turning towards their father, which stimulates a conflict between competition with and desire to idealise the father, creating a safe merger away from the mother. Developing a positive oedipal constellation represents the defeat of pre-genital envy of the teasing mother and fears of closeness with the mother’s body, expressed as a fear of inadequacy towards the female genitals. If the father is weak and submissive to the mother, he reinforces the repressive laws, behaviours, and denial of feelings and expression, creating deep-seated guilt in aggression towards the mother. This can lead to sexual inhibition and lack of sexual passion, which would have given the child the courage to establish a desired union with the ideal other and face the unavoidable fears of intimacy and rejection. Masturbation is a common manifestation of forbidden sexual impulses representing regressive disassociation from conflictual object relations. Here are some other examples

  1. A woman’s pathology developed during unresolved oedipal conflicts leads to a persistent attachment and longing for unsatisfactory, unavailable men, generating infantile excitement and drama. They cannot enjoy a relationship with a man capable of caring, reciprocity and true intimacy, as these require commitment and tolerance of boredom.
  2. A man with an unsatisfactory woman, with a deep sense of insecurity, projects hostility and guilt towards the woman who represents the parental figure.
  3. A woman’s envy of her mother displaced onto her father (represented by his penis)to create a rivalry with her mother.
  4. A transgression and prohibition of all sexual encounters by teasing and withholding. Archaic aspects of the Oedipal complex, such as one’s body and genitals

A negative oedipal complex is established as a defence against castration anxiety, Whilst the pregenital phase establishes tolerance levels for the ambivalence of parental responses, behaviours and feelings. The development stage from pre-oedipal towards oedipal means dissolving protective defences against primitive diffuse affects while remaining separate (aware of oneself) and leaving behind oedipal objects. The acceptance and courage to face the dangerous possibility of losing one’s identity as one liberates his aggression against these internal /external objects and the prospects of their retaliation and punishment. Integrating erotic desire and romantic idealisation of the object simultaneously will help overcome the oedipal complex, merging good/bad aspects of the other into the Superego. With these parts crystallised at the end of a healthy separation or successful therapy, the capacity for object constancy, empathy and concern are developed through the Integration of libidinal and aggressive strivings. The onset of depression normally follows as the child can then mourn the loss of the idealised parental imago /object and start to incorporate and feel negative emotions such as sadness, fear, or anger.


Narcissistic love masks the beginning of the capacity for concern with guilt and overcoming the deep unconscious devaluation of the love object. When the borderline can establish a primitive idealisation, it starts the process towards a love relation different from the primary object relationship of love /hate, push/pull dynamics. Idealisation does not and cannot tolerate ambivalence and is easily destroyed by any aggression. If the other lacks the capacity for mirroring, any ambivalence generates aggression that must be tolerated and, therefore, dangerous to the relationship.

The narcissist, having no healthy physical contact with their mother, cannot achieve skin eroticism and learns to override sexual pleasure with power for the assurance of security to avoid total submission to a sadistic object. Conquered sex objects are expected to be always available for narcissistic supply and need gratification. The narcissists are stimulated and motivated by the body that withholds itself or a person/object considered highly desirable and attractive by society, replaying early paternal patterns of teasing and possession. A lack of possession stirs up envy and a feeling of inferiority, forcing the narcissist to devalue and spoil the previously desired object to reinstate superiority and grandiosity. An innate fear of the object’s exploiting/ humiliating nature reinforces the need to escape to freedom, constantly challenged by the search for human love, bound up in body parts (breasts, vaginas, penises).

Borderlines usually have intense love attachments based on primitive idealisation alternating with abrupt disappointment, transforming into persecution towards the same object. Passionate commitments are based on full genital excitement and orgasm cemented by excitement and drama. The idealisation of the object denies and splits the aggression and any ambivalence created, keeping the idealised relationship from being contaminated with aggression. Depending on the separation phase where stunted emotional growth happens,

” Oral gratification by sexual activities may be implemented to alleviate frustrations with mother.”

The mother engulfs or rejects the child due to her impaired self, triggered by a fear of intimacy or the demand for closeness, risking losing the mother’s love and oneself. The absence of a mother can seem like annihilation, with the inability to tolerate ambivalence and frustrations. The mother torments the child to validate her view of reality and demands the child become her clone. The child’s needs for self-activation and fulfilment become a dangerous enemy to the symbiosis, with self-rage turning into apathy and depression. Boundary infringement makes life impossible for the child, with no capacity to stand pain, frustration, and easily offended, falling into despair and helplessness. Creating an inflated self-concept conceals their fear of collapse into helplessness and is compensated via power and domination. Once the child can temper and accept his anger, he will not destroy the mother or himself in the process; he can self-activate and tolerate separation anxiety. They may use transitional objects for comfort (teddy bears, dolls) to love and be angry with the object at the same time (sports teams, celebrities), without any punishment and rejection, integration and internalising of good/bad aspects of the self and object are achieved with full object relations.

Cohen, M. (2000). Love Relations: Normality and Pathology: Otto Kernberg, Yale University Press. Journal of American Academic Psychoanalysis, 28, 181-184.