An Overview of Separation Theory

Separation Theory integrates psychoanalytic and existential systems of thought by showing how early interpersonal pain, and separation anxiety and later death anxiety lead to the development of powerful psychological defenses. These defenses attempt to cope with and minimize painful experiences and emotions suffered in one’s developmental years but later predispose limitations and maladaptation in adult life.  The name Separation Theory was derived from the understanding that human life can be conceptualized as a series of successive separation experiences ending in death, the ultimate separation.

Psychoanalytic theory emphasizes the importance of unconscious motivation, explains how interpersonal trauma leads to the formation of defenses, identifies conflict and competition within the family system, as well as incestuous tendencies, describes levels of sexual development, and explains how resistance and transference enter into the therapy process. Nevertheless, psychoanalysis fails to deal effectively with death anxiety (the important role that death plays in life) and its impact on the future development of the individual. Existential psychology focuses on the significance of death awareness and dying on the personality, as well as other issues of being, such as autonomy, individuation, transcendent goals etc, but tends to neglect the “down and dirty” psychoanalytic concepts of defense mechanisms, competition and psychosexual development.

In my opinion, neither approach is sufficient in understanding humanity. Both conceptual models –psychodynamic and existential — are central to an understanding of human personality development. Although it developed independently, Separation Theory attempts to synthesize the two systems. A fundamental principle underlying the theory reflects my personal view of people as innocent rather than inherently bad or corrupt. Unlike Freud postulation in his instinct theory, I do not see human beings as innately aggressive or self-destructive; rather, they become outwardly hostile, violent, or harmful to self or others only in response to rejection, fear, emotional pain, and existential angst. No child is born bad or sinful; the psychological defenses that children form early in life are appropriate to actual situations that threaten the emerging self.

The Human Condition

Each individual is born with the potential to exhibit a variety of propensities that are essentially human. The basic qualities of our human heritage that distinguish our species from other animals are the unique ability to love and feel compassion for oneself and others, the capacity for abstract reasoning and creativity, the capability to set goals and develop strategies to accomplish them, an awareness of existential concerns, the desire to search for meaning and social affiliation, and the potential to experience the sacredness and mystery of life.

Whenever any of these qualities are damaged, we lose a part of ourselves that is most alive and human. Yet these basic human characteristics are fractured or limited to varying degrees in the course of growing up in family constellations that are often less than ideal. The resultant emotional pain and frustration leads to an inward, self-protective attitude and a basic distrust of others.Voice Therapy procedures, the clinical methodology of Separation Theory, expose and challenge negative attitudes, beliefs, and self-limiting defenses and supports the uniqueness of the individual. I place a strong emphasis on differentiation from the early conditioning in the family of origin. The ultimate goal of psychotherapy is to help people overcome their personal limitations and maintain a healthy balance between feeling and rationality, that reflects their basic humanness.

People, unlike other species, are cursed with an awareness of their own mortality. I believe that the tragedy is that their true self consciousness concerning this existential issue contributes to an ultimate irony: Human beings are both brilliant and aberrant, sensitive and savage, exquisitely caring and painfully indifferent, remarkably creative and incredibly destructive to self and others. The capacity to imagine and conceptualize has negative as well as positive consequences because it predisposes anxiety states that culminate in a defensive form of denial.

Feeling and compassion are a significant part of our human heritage; but when we are cut off from our feelings we are desensitized to ourselves and others and are more likely to become self destructive or act out aggression. The unfortunate consequence is that the same defenses that enabled us to survive the emotional pain of childhood and existential despair are not only maladaptive and limit our personal potential for living a full life, but they also inevitably lead to negative behaviors toward others, thereby perpetuating a cycle of destructiveness.

Paradoxically, ideologies and religious beliefs that are a source of spiritual comfort and offer some relief from a sense of aloneness and interpersonal distress, also polarize people against one another. Threatened by individuals or groups with different customs and belief systems, we mistakenly feel that we must overpower or destroy them.

Life Can Be Conceptualized as a Series of Progressive Weaning Experiences

Human existence, or life as we know it, can be conceived of as a succession of separation experiences that make us increasingly aware of the fact of our aloneness and eventual death. The feeling of separateness causes a certain degree of anxiety. How we cope with our fear and the subsequent defenses we utilize determine the course of our emotional lives.

Eventually, children realize that their parents will die, though at first the child somehow feels exempt from this fate. In their desperation to escape the terrifying loss that they see as inevitable, children cling more tenaciously to their parents and the family system. At the same time, their methods of self-soothing and selfparenting themselves are strengthened and become more deeply entrenched.

Later, children realize that they cannot sustain their own lives. At this point, the world that they originally believed to be permanent is virtually turned upside down.  The manner in which they attempt to defend themselves from the frightening awareness that all people, and even they to, must die, has a profound effect on their lives.

When confronted with an awareness of death, children must either feel the inherent anxiety and painful emotions or attempt to disconnect to a certain extent from investing emotionally in life. This is the core conflict for each individual: whether to stay feeling and develop compassion for one’s self and others or to resort to an inward, self-protective lifestyle where relationships with people play a less significant role. The greater the pain and frustration a child faced before his or her full realization of death, the more likely it is that the child will choose the defensive alternative.

People can choose to either defend themselves by cutting off painful emotional experiences or they can choose to remain vulnerable to pain and move toward fulfilling their human potential.  Separation Theory points out the contrast between living with fantasy and illusion and living a more feelingful, goal-directed life. The extent to which people live out fantasies of connection, they largely relate to themselves as objects and treat themselves the way their parent or primary caretaker treated them. At each moment in time, one is either capitulating to negative aspects of one’s internal programming or moving toward individuation.

Basic Concepts in Separation Theory

The Fantasy Bond – The Primary Defense

The child compensates for emotional trauma, separation experiences and existential angst by forming a fantasy bond or imaginary connection with his/her parent or primary caretaker. This fantasy process relieves stress and can become progressively more addictive. The degree to which children continue to rely on this illusory connection is proportional to the amount of pain, frustration and anxiety they experienced in growing up. On a subconscious level, the fantasy bond also provides a modicum of relief from fears of death and helps maintain an illusion of immortality. There are four important dynamics related to maintaining the fantasy bond: (1) idealization of one’s parents, (2) internalization of parents’ negative attitudes, (3) projection of parents’ traits on to others, and (4) identifying with and manifesting parents’ negative personality traits.

The fantasy bond necessarily involves a certain amount of distortion of reality; therefore, the more one relies on this form of fantasy gratification, the more one is limited in coping with the real world.  If this defensive fantasy world becomes extreme, a person’s ability to function effectively becomes seriously compromised.

The Voice

The voice is a well-integrated pattern of negative thoughts that supports the fantasy bond and is at the core of an individual’s maladaptive behavior. It is not an actual hallucination, but rather, an identifiable system of critical and destructive thoughts. It is an overlay on the personality that is not natural or harmonious, but learned or imposed from without. It represents the internalization of critical, rejecting, hostile and traumatic attitudes that the child experienced.

The voice can be thought of as a secondary defense that supports the fantasy bond. Voices range in intensity from minor self-criticisms to major self-attacks and foster self-soothing habit patterns, isolation, and a self-destructive lifestyle. Voice attacks are directed toward others as well as toward oneself. Both types of voices — those that belittle the self and those that attack other people — predispose alienation.  

Voice Therapy, a cognitive, behavioral methodology, brings these internalized thought processes to the surface, with accompanying affect, enabling clients to confront alien components of the personality. I developed these techniques for the purpose of helping people access and identify the contents of this largely unconscious thought process. When clients learn to express their self-critical thoughts in the second person format, powerful emotions are aroused and previously suppressed thoughts, feelings, and memories come to light. The amount of self-hatred and anger toward self that emerges during these sessions indicate the depth and pervasiveness of this self-destructive process.

After identifying the content of their destructive thoughts, clients learn to distinguish these antagonistic attitudes from a more realistic view of themselves. They become more objective and, more importantly, begin to understand and develop insight into the source of their self-attacks.


Faced with primal pain in our personal development, compounded by existential angst, people develop and rely on psychological defenses that offer a modicum of comfort but also predispose varying degrees of maladaptation. To a certain extent, we each depend on fantasy processes and live with a covertly destructive point of view that has a profoundly negative effect on our personality and overall adjustment in life. Unfortunately, we are largely unaware of being divided or set against ourselves. We are only partially conscious that we possess a hostile, self-denying, and self-attacking aspect of our personalities and continue to be restricted and controlled by its influences.

In Voice Therapy, when individuals expose their negative thoughts or voices, release the accompanying affect, and gain insight into their sources, they gradually modify their behavior, improve their adjustment and move toward satisfying their goals. The process involves breaking away from restrictive defenses and maladaptive responses and moving toward independence and autonomy.

Separation Theory offers no escape from existential pain or the inevitable vicissitudes of life; however, it describes how people can choose a life of courage and integrity in which feeling, and self-awareness are genuinely valued. We could appreciate the existential dilemma without resorting to false resolutions, deadening painkillers and other defense mechanisms.  We can lead an honest, feelingful existence that would do justice to our real selves and to those people close to us. The awareness of our finite existence can make life and living all the more precious and offers a real potential to achieve personal freedom and a life of meaning and compassion.

About the Author

Robert Firestone, Ph.D Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, theorist and artist. He is the Consulting Theorist for The Glendon Association. He is author of numerous books including Voice Therapy, Challenging the Fantasy Bond, Compassionate Child-Rearing, Fear of Intimacy, Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, Beyond Death Anxiety The Ethics of Interpersonal RelationshipsSelf Under Siege, and recently his collection of stories Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice.  His studies on negative thought processes and their associated affect have led to the development of Voice Therapy, an advanced therapeutic methodology to uncover and contend with aspects of self-destructive and self-limiting behaviors. Firestone has applied his concepts to empirical research and to developing the Firestone Assessment of Self-destructive Thoughts (FAST), a scale that assesses suicide potential. This work led to the publication of Suicide and the Inner Voice: Risk Assessment, Treatment and Case Management. He has published more than 30 professional articles and chapters for edited volumes, and produced 35 video documentaries. His art can be viewed on You can learn more about Dr. Firestone by visiting

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I stumbled on this article but, after reading it, I noticed that a lot of symptoms of traumatic childhood events correlated with me, so I started thinking about my childhood. What I found was when I lived with my parents I don’t remember much at all, but what I do remember is arguments and threats. Then I started to think about my life now and what i do in it, and I do think that I idealize my caretakers, internalize their negative feelings, project myself in a similar manner (from what I can tell, but it is hard to think of myself in a positive light so I am not sure if I really project their negative traits but I feel like I probably do), but I don’t think I manifest their negative traits. Also the voice section I feel like could have some meaning to me because I do catch myself telling myself I am not good enough or I can’t do something, even if it’s simple and end up not doing it, but it isn’t like an on and off thing, when I wake up in the morning I try to tell myself that I am going to have a good day, then I’ll make to my bed and everything, but by the time I get to any tasks, my mind is telling me I can’t do it and I’ll find myself at the end of the day feeling empty and unaccomplished and while revising my day, I notice things that normal people might not have done or worried about. I want to be happy and stuff, but it never seems to work out the way I plan


After reading this article i reflected on my daily life with my husband i think i am now more forgiving and understanding because most of what he does replacents what he went through in his child hood after lossing his Dad .
Great information thanks for sharing

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