Thoughts stemming from a consideration of Ian D. Suttie’s concept of ‘simple attachment to mother’

Charles Sharpe

Charles Sharpe is a psychotherapist



Ian D. Suttie was a Scottish psychotherapist who in 1935 while based at the Tavistock Clinic in London published a book, The Origins of Love and Hate which was the culmination of his writings and research. The book was published a few days after Suttie’s death at the age of 46. At the time the book caused a stir in the psychotherapeutic world of London where Freud’s ‘new’ psychology, ‘psychoanalysis’, ruled the roost.

Suttie’s book challenged psychoanalytic thinking.  Appalled by what he regarded as the conceptual mess and the self-centred hypotheses of the Freudian framework, he urged a radical review of what Freudian theory asked us to understand about how human beings develop. There was, Suttie claimed, a  “taboo on tenderness”  throughout western culture, and the Freudian theoretical edifice –  though not the actual practice of psychotherapy  – was, according to Suttie, in large measure responsible for this.  Not surprisingly his book is little known or talked about in the psychoanalytic mainstream but I would argue that in the field of  ‘what we understand about the way children grow up’  he has had a major, and sadly unacknowledged influence. Ian D Suttie’s work is the primary source of the range of ideas that have collected under the umbrella of ‘Attachment Theory.’


Community taking the place of early mother love

Though far from being against scientific research, Suttie believed the tendency in society toward what he saw as a ‘taboo on tenderness’ had started with science which he thought represented “a peculiarly intellectual ‘play’ “ (Suttie,1935,p2.)  He questioned – particularly in the area of the mind – science’s claim to objectivity and its striving for materialistic and mechanistic explanations which he thought were not helpful in considering human attachments and that were the antithesis of human beings’  tendency toward community. Suttie thought community  reconstituted  “the tender relationships with the human environment which is lost in early childhood” (p2). He felt science for all its advances had not yet seen the significance of relationships between people.


Freud’s metapsychology : the oedipus complex and ‘penis envy’

Freud himself always wished for psychoanalysis to be recognised as a science and it is in Freud’s attempts to achieve this that Suttie found himself at odds with him. Freudian orthodoxy contains what is often called his ‘metapsychology’ in which he situates ideas he felt would prove to have a scientific basis. Among these were development models of sexuality and the oedipus complex. In these Freud proposed that early childhood development was based on oedipal struggles, in which the infant son has sexual desires for his mother and unconsciously vies to displace his father. This oedipal complex is eventually resolved when the parent, in Freud’s construct, the father, re-establishes his power with the threat of castration causing the child to repress its sexual feelings (Freud, 1899, Young,2001). While Jung (1913) proposed a similar though less developed model ,The Elektra Complex, which related to the female child and her desire for her father, Suttie thought that Freud ignored the mother for the father and sought to explain socialisation in men as merely  the overcoming of sexual jealousy by coercion and fear.

ignores the mother for the father’;’denies tenderness – filial and parental – and universalises sex’; ‘regards socialisation in men as merely the overcoming the sex jealousy  by coercion and fear’

Equally Suttie opposed Freud’s inference that women are basically jealous of the male’s sexual organs, what Freud called penis envy. Suttie thought the latter’s existence was possible in some cultures but he complements it with other characteristics which refer to the male psyche, such as, the father’s jealousy of the infant’s possession of the mother, and  the male jealousy of the female’s capacity to be a mother.


Human beings are essentially social and need companionship.

Where Freud put sexual desire, Suttie put love. He suggested that the source of an infant’s love was

“for food, etc., and not sexual desires and sensations; and…..the original object of love (also of reverence) now appeared to be the mother and not the father” (p3).

From this Suttie saw the possibility

“that the biological need for nurture might be psychologically presented in the infant mind, not as a bundle of practical organic necessities and potential privations, but as pleasure in responsive companionship and as a correlative of discomfort in loneliness and isolation” (p3).

For Suttie, the Freudian notion that self-expression was a ‘detensioning’ process in which feelings were evacuated on to others seemed false and in its place Suttie

‘imagined expression as an offering or stimulus directed toward the other person, designed to elicit a response while love itself was essentially a state of harmonious interplay” (p3).

Suttie believed the theory he had formed belonged “to the group of psychologies” that had their source in the work of Freud, but he felt it differed from psychoanalysis by

“introducing the conception for an innate need-for-companionship which is the infant’s only way of self-preservation” (p5).

This need which gave rise “to parental and fellowship ‘love’ .“  Suttie put this  “in the place of the Freudian Libido,” and he regarded it as independent of sexual appetite (p5).

Suttie thought the application of this conception re-oriented psychoanalytic dynamics by attributing “to the mother the significance in rearing that Freud formerly given to the father,” thus lessening the importance Freud attached to individual sense-gratification as motive and increasing  “the significance of social desires and interests”, that is,  “it represents ‘expression’ as an offering or a stimulus applied to others not merely as pleasant exercise of function” (p5).

Like Freud, Suttie saw that

“From the widest scientific and philosophic standpoint we must consider the human mind as a product of evolution……as having had its definitive function to serve the survival of our species.” (p10)


Nonetheless he argued that the mind should be considered from two other standpoints, firstly the “as the result of the child’s contact with its own family,” and secondly “as the result of its parents’ social and cultural relationships” (p10).

Suttie proposed,

“the child is born “with a mind that is adapted to infancy…….is disposed as to profit by parental nurture”(p12).  For Suttie this “ implies the conclusion that the child mind is less like that of primitive animals than is the adult mind” because

“it is adapted to a milieu and mode of behaving vastly different from the free-living, self-supporting animals. Instead of an armament of instincts – latent or otherwise – which would lead it to attempt on its own account things impossible to its powers or even undesirable – it is born with a simple attachment-to-mother who is the sole source of food and protection. Instincts of self-preservation such as would appropriate in an animal which as to fend for itself would be positively destructive to the dependent infant, whose impulses must be adapted to its mode of livelihood, pseudo-parasitism” (p12).

These last propositions, made in 1935 represent the source of attachment theory and all those other theories which are clustered with it.

Suttie argued that the notion  “of the infant being a bundle of cooperating or competing instincts”  should be rejected and suggested that the infant is   “dominated from the beginning by the need to retain the mother – a need which, if thwarted, must produce the utmost terror and rage, since the loss of the mother is the precursor to death” (p12).

From this position Suttie suggests there is a need to consider the nature of this attachment-to-mother. Whether it be  “merely the sum of the infantile bodily needs and satisfactions which refer to her”  or whether “the need for a mother is primarily presented to the child as a need for company and as a discomfort in isolation.”  Suttie provides no decisive conclusion but maintains

‘it is indisputable that need for company, moral encouragement, attention, protectiveness, leadership, etc., remains after all the sensory gratifications connected to the mother’s body have become superfluous and have been surrendered” (p12-13).

Suttie  believed

“play cooperation, competition and culture-interests are substitutes for the mutually caressing relationship of child and mother. By these substitutes, we put the whole social environment in the place once occupied by the mother – maintaining with it a mental or cultural rapport in lieu of the bodily relationships of caressing, etc., formerly enjoyed by the mother. A joint interest in things has replaced the reciprocal interest in persons; friendship has developed out of love” (p13).


Suttie and feminism

While Freud’s views of individual and social development can be seen as patriarchal and authoritarian, Suttie’s were matriarchal and democratic and though Suttie may be credited for shifting the paradigm of dynamic psychology from the masculine to the feminine it is possible to argue that he and those who in a number of guises have developed his theory of attachment-to-mother, placed a great deal of pressure for the success of nurturing upon the mother as well as promoting the expectation that she will give up significant parts of her life to do this.

Rachel Cusk (201)in a significant review article reminds us “The baby comes and everyone panics, looking for the woman who’s going to take care of it,” and this she argues is the principal source of a woman’s anger when she has a baby,

“because she has lost the power of autonomy and free will in her own life. From the first moment of her pregnancy, a woman finds herself subject to forces over which she has no control, not least those of the body itself. This subjection applies equally to the unknown and the known : she is her body’s subject, her doctor’s subject, her baby’s subject, and in this biological work she has undertaken she becomes society’s and history’s subject too. But where she feels the subjection most is in the territories,whatever they are that in her pre-maternal life she made her own. The threat to what made her herself to what made her an individual : this is what the mother finds hardest to live down. Having been told all her life to value her individuality and pursue its aims, she encounters an outright contradiction, a betrayal – even among the very gatekeepers of her identity, her husband or colleagues or friends – in the requirement that she surrender it”  ( Cusk, 2011, p36 ).

While it may seem to strike an apologist’s position, It may be argued that Winnicott, with his notion of the good-enough mother took some of this pressure off women and it was nevertheless Ian Suttie and in earlier times authors like George Eliot (Marion Evans) who began to make us question the uncomfortable and abusive consequences of a paternal and masculine culture.

Suttie also put forward the idea that the whole social environment eventually takes up the intense relationship that was once the primary role of the mother. It does this by maintaining a “mental and cultural rapport” in lieu of the intimacy once enjoyed with the mother. Nevertheless some may argue that our cultural norms have shifted to the extent that women have adopted other ways of mothering or parenting in order to achieve more emotional, social and financial freedom.


Suttie’s legacy

Working on his own at a time when psychoanalytic theory was supported by   “the cooperative work of many specialists in widely different fields”  and presented “a relatively integrated body of ‘explained’ observations,“ was,  Suttie found, “extremely difficult for one individual….to challenge successfully” (p4). Yet, Although he did not live to experience it, Suttie correctly observed that Freudians were trending towards the ideas he was putting forward and psychoanalytic theory was

“recognising more clearly the social nature of man, and is no longer presenting his psychology as that of a self-contained entity independent of his fellows in so far as his bodily appetites and gratifications demand their services” ( p9).

There is much more to be  discovered and to be grown upon in Suttie’s ideas, but certainly the influential theoretical positions developed by Fairbairn, (object relations theory) Winnicott, (maturational processes and the good-enough mother) and Bowlby (attachment theory) among other through the decades following Suttie’s death are testament to his achievement.



Cusk,R.(2011)  ‘From liberty and equality to the maternal grind’ in The New Review, The Observer, April 3rd, 2011. This is a review of Shattered : Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality by Rebecca Asher published by Harvill Secker in 2011. The text of this book review can be accessed at rebecca-asher-motherhood-equality

Freud, S. (1899) The  Interpretation of Dreams Penguin Vol 4 Freud Library, Harmondsworth Middlesex (1991)

Jung,C.G. (1913).‘The Theory of Psychoanalysis”Theory of Psychoanalysis’  in Carl Gustav Jung, Collected Works. Volume 4: Freud and Psychoanalysis.  New York: Pantheon. (1961) pp83-226

Suttie, I.D. (1935) The Origins of Love and Hate Harmondsworth, Middlesex Pelican Books (1960)

Young, R.M.(2001) Oedipal Complex New York, Icon Books



Jim McCollom Jr. writes.

I read your article on thoughts stemming from Ian Suttie “simple attachment to mother.” I came across a reference to Ian Suttie in “Why Religion Matters” by Huston Smith. Smith mentioned that Aldous Huxley believed Suttie’s book was greatly important.

What an exciting grouping of thinkers!


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