About Separation Theory

What is Separation Theory?

Separation Theory developed by Dr. Robert Firestone, represents a broadly based, coherent system of concepts and hypotheses that integrate psychoanalytic and existential systems of thought. Separation theory explains how early trauma leads to defense formation and how these original defenses are reinforced as the developing child gradually becomes aware of his or her own mortality. See Combating Destructive Thought Processes.

Voice Therapy methodology, which is based on Separation Theory, helps clients expose and separate from dependency bonds and destructive “voices,” remnants of negative childhood experiences that seriously impair their sense of self, spirit, and individuality. See Voice Therapy.

How does Separation Theory add to our current understanding of human behavior?

Separation Theory focuses on two major sources of psychological pain, interpersonal and existential, that impinge on the child and disturb the individuation process. Interpersonal pain is caused by deprivation, rejection, and overt or covert aggression on the part of parents, family members, and other significant figures, particularly during the early years. Existential pain refers to the basic ontological problems of aloneness, aging, deterioration and death, as well as to other facts of existence that have a negative effect on a person’s life experience: racism, crime, economic fluctuations, poverty, political tyranny, war, ethnic strife, terrorism, etc.

Historically, psychoanalysts have investigated the effects of interpersonal pain, whereas existential psychotherapists have directed their attention to philosophical and existential issues. Neither system deals sufficiently with the important concerns of the other; yet to ignore either seriously impairs an understanding of psychological functioning. In our opinion, both systems of thought must be integrated to fully understand the individual.
What are the major concepts in Separation Theory?

The Fantasy Bond and the Critical Inner Voice are the basic concepts in this theoretical approach. The fantasy bond, an illusion of connection with another person, is the primary defense against both interpersonal and existential pain. The critical inner voice can be conceptualized as a secondary defense that protects the fantasy bond.
Is Separation Theory based on certain underlying philosophical assumptions?

Yes. The theory reflects a humanistic view of people as innocent rather than inherently bad or corrupt. Human beings are not innately destructive or self-destructive; they become aggressive, violent, or self-destructive only in response to emotional pain, fear, rejection, and deprivation.

The approach represents an ultimate challenge to the defense system. It is our belief that psychological defenses are maladaptive because they cut deeply into an individual’s life experience, and when they persist into adult life, they eventually become the essential psychopathology. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that these defenses were originally formed under conditions of stress and often served as survival mechanisms in the face of overwhelming pain and anxiety.

The underlying philosophy places primary importance on the individual as a unique entity. Efforts toward preserving the life within each person are given priority over supporting any group or system, whether the couple, the family system, ethnic or political groups, nationality, or religion.

Another aspect of the theory is its focus on transcendent goals, such as generosity or altruism as sound mental health principles. By extending themselves to others, rather than seeking immediate gratification, people find more meaning in life. See Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy.