Conflict (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
In psychoanalysis, the notion of conflict generally refers to intrapsychic conflict in which antagonistic forces are pitted against each other. The idea is central to psychoanalytic doctrine: It is no exaggeration to say that in light of the importance given to infantile sexuality and the unconscious, conflict is basic to the structuring of the psychic armature; further, it can be said that Sigmund Freud devoted his entire life to elaborating a theory of conflict.
Freud takes a cautious approach in his early work. He remains close to a psychology of consciousness at the beginning of his theory of repression, when he evokes, in the patient under the influence of a wish, the surging forth of "contrasting representations" and "irreconcilable ideas" that are so painful that, by an effort of "counter-will" the patient decides "to forget the thing" (1941b , Notice III). From the outset, then, he posits the idea of a fundamental conflict between wishes and what opposes them. When Freud later unreservedly states that this processepressions essentially unconscious, that perspective, as much as the role of sexuality in wishes, becomes the basis for his parting of ways with Josef Breuer and for his ongoing opposition to such thinkers as Pierre Janet.
From that point on, it is possible to follow the stages in his elaboration of a general theory of conflict:
- as their name indicates, the neuropsychoses of defense (hysteria, obsessional neurosis, phobia) can be attributed to the conflict between wishes and obstacles to their fulfillment;
- this struggle is expressed in compromise formations in which the wish is blocked and, at the same time, finds fulfillment in disguised forms: This is the return of the repressed, in the form of symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, parapraxes, and so forth, and all these socially and morally acceptable substitutive formations nevertheless produce an occult satisfaction of desire, thus providing and outlet for accumulated psychic energy;
- it is thus important to distinguish manifest conflict, as it appears in the complaints of the patient and those around him or her, in symptomatology, and so on, from latent conflict, which only the work of psychoanalysis can bring to light;
- the source of conflict is always to be sought in psychosexuality. Such, at least, is the position that Freud vigorously affirms in the first part of his work. However, the status of aggression posed a problem and would remain a troublesome point"" in his theory. He returned to the issue, without finding a satisfactory solution, with his second theory of the instincts and the introduction of the "death instinct," in his attempt to find what might lie "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920g) and by reframing questions related to sadism and masochism (for example, in "The Economic Problem of Masochism" [1924c]) and the like;
- the theorization of the neuropsychoses of defense explicitly posits the existence of psychopathological states that do not follow this schema in that they are not produced by a conflict between the instincts and the defenses: perversions ("the neuroses are the negative form of perversion," Freud writes in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" [1905d, p. 238]) and actual neuroses, in which the symptom is produced by a direct flow of libidinal energy into the somatic functions, without passing through psychical working over (this latter category was taken up and extensively developed in modern studies of psychosomatic disorders). However, these distinctions, which seem to originate in a somewhat overly rigorous psychoanalytic nosography, were challenged by Freud's successors;
- an important watershed occurred around 1910 with regard to two connected areas, when Freud began to envisage conflicts between the "two principles of mental functioning," the pleasure principle and the reality principle ("Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" [1911b]), and the opposition between narcissistic cathexes and object cathexes ("On Narcissism: An Introduction" [1914c]);
- at the same time, Freud's theorization of the Oedipus complex (explicitly designated by that name for the first time in 1910, although the idea is present much earlier) brought to light the idea of conflicting identifications (first and foremost, between paternal and maternal identifications);
- from this point on, the stages in libidinal development having been established, different developmental and structural levels of psychic conflict can be distinguished. In the case of orality, biting/not biting the breast; according to Karl Abraham, this ambivalent phase is preceded by a preambivalent phase. In the anal phase, expulsion/retention; this is where the sadistic/masochistic and active/passive oppositions are imbricated. The phallic phase is characterized by the oppositions between phallic/castrated and masculine/feminine as well as by the principal form of conflict that places desire in opposition to prohibition. As is clear from this brief summary, conflict in Freudian thought often takes the form of pairs of opposites.
There is more at issue here than merely situating conflicts in the activation of the erogenous zones. When there is conflict, it involves the putting into play of object relations (for example, in the case of anality, in the oppositions between satisfying/disappointing or giving/refusing). The love/hate opposition, which Melanie Klein posits as fundamental (working within the perspective inaugurated in Freud's second theory of the instincts) has since undergone extensive elaboration. Finally, at the most basic level of all, the opposition between being/nonbeing should no doubt be added; its importance is apparent in the study of psychoses.
Conflict can pit the instincts themselves against one another. In his early work Freud places the sexual instinct in opposition to the instinct for self-preservation; in his second theory, he opposes the life instinct to the death instinct. Moreover, clinical practice suggests that instincts may be conflictual in themselves: It has been observed that in certain anxiety states instinctual satisfaction is fantasized as a cataclysmic explosion that would annihilate all the subject's vital energy in a single instant and cause death. We should also recall the forms of conflict in which different agencies within the psychic apparatus are in opposition: the conscious and the unconscious in Freud's early theory, or the Id, the Ego, and the Superego in his later work.
In all the above forms, conflict is considered in terms of its intrapsychic workings. However, it is clear we should also consider its articulation with interpersonal conflicts and, beyond that, the problem of conflicts between the individual and society, which Freud himself addressed several times, notably in Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego (1921c) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a).
See also: Allergy; Ambivalence; "Analysis Terminable and Interminable"; Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Compromise formation; Defense; Defense mechanisms; Doubt; Drive/instinct; Dualism; Dynamic point of view, the; Ego autonomy; Hysteria; Oedipus complex; Neutrality/Benevolent neutrality; Nuclear complex; Prohibition; Psychotic potential; Reaction-formation; Splitting; Symptom-formation; Transference hatred.
Freud, Sigmund. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 45-61.
. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 130-243.
. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 218-226.
. (1914c). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.
. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.
. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.
. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.
. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents, SE, 21: 57-145.
. (1941b ). Sketches for the 'Preliminary commmunication' of 1893, (B) 'III.' SE, 1: 149-150.
Brenner, Charles. (1982). The mind in conflict. New York: International Universities Press.
Frank, George. (1996). Conflict and deficit: two theories or one? Psychoanalytical Psychology, 13, 567-570.
Smith, Henry. (2003). Conceptions of conflict in psychoanalytic theory and practice. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 72,49-96.