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The proleptic-state-of-mind is a defensive narcissistic hallucination, born out of the primitive fear of separation, where the couple imagines what could be and lives in that picture in their mind, experiencing it as a reality. There are 2 types of the Proleptic state of mind: the first one being proleptic imagination and the second one being proleptic fear. Proleptic fear is more destructive employing negative emotions whereas the proleptic imagination is more aspirational employing gratitude. These are important concepts that help the therapists psychoanalyze couples or individuals that undergo therapy. The concept enhances understanding on how projective identification works as well as the unconscious phantasy and the unconscious beliefs. The thesis starts with an introduction where the topic is described in detail. Sentiments provided by different researchers are taken into consideration to promote the comprehension of the subject matter. The discussion incorporates case studies which further enhance the knowledge on the subject matter. Material relevant to the study is carefully utilized to describe the topic in detail. Finally, the conclusion is provided following a comprehensive discussion on the topic in question. There are few accomplished authors that have discussed these concepts and they include Fisher and Nathans and they borrow and modify their analysis based on Bion’s and Freuds work. Hence the information provided is incorporated to shed more light on the subject matter so as to better the relationships of couples. The information is essential in determining the conclusion which is made regarding the concept of PSM..

The proleptic-state-of-mind is a defensive narcissistic hallucination, born out of the primitive fear of separation, where the couple imagines what could be and lives in that picture in their mind, experiencing it as a reality. I see the proleptic imagination and fear as component parts of the proleptic-state-of-mind, with the proleptic fear as the more destructive position employing envy, and the proleptic imagination as the more aspirational position employing gratitude. I speculate that couples in conflict are ‘stuck’ at either pole with a desire expressed by one in the duo, to give up the hallucination once shared by the pair. Investment in the hallucination can only be relinquished by revealing its existence to the couple. I aim to look at the proleptic-state-of-mind as a psychoanalytic concept. How it can be applied to couples in therapeutic practice, as well as the challenges or issues the therapist faces when keeping the proleptic imagination or fear in mind and the implications of its use on current and future practice.
Fisher being one of the few psychoanalytic authors introduces the concept of a proleptic-state-of-mind which is a pattern of relating and thinking, that takes on whatever is thought about or experienced (such as fear or desire) as a concrete reality. He argues the proleptic-state-of-mind is both the proleptic imagination and the negative proleptic imagination which is also known as proleptic fear. ‘Prolepsis’ comes from the Greek word ‘prolambanein’ – to anticipate (Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, 2002). Bloom (2005) states it is an anticipatory, future act or development that is believed to be already in existence or accomplished. In the proleptic imagination there is no space between the image or idea and fact or reality (Fisher, 2009, p.35), and couples who share a proleptic imagination share an omnipotence of mind that acts as an unconscious emotional communication between them (Fisher, 2009, p.37). He refers to this shared experience also as a shared psychotic-state-of-mind, as couples experience in the here-and-now a future event or wish as if it were realised already. On the other hand, the negative proleptic-state-of-mind or proleptic fear is “where what is imagined is feared or hated” (Fisher, 2009, p.49).In his innovative paper, “The Macbeths in the Consulting Room”, Fisher (2009) introduces the term ‘proleptic-state-of-mind’ and he uses the Macbeths experience of hallucinations to convey the state of mind. He demonstrates a picture of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who separately see hallucinations (images of their real internal feelings) but try to destroy the real image, to cut off full ‘knowing’ of the self and of the other mind. What is important here is Fishers distinction between the proleptic imagination and the negative proleptic imagination, in that the proleptic imagination is a psychotic-state-of-mind and the negative proleptic imagination is a hallucinatory-state-of-mind.
He demonstrates the shared proleptic-state-of-mind in couples, through the relationship of ‘the Macbeths’ in Shakespeare’s play. ‘The Macbeths’ are false and out of touch with reality as a couple, because of the fantastic hallucinatory-state-of-mind they share. The state of mind which they revel in and enjoy but also struggle to break free from. Written in 1606 when Shakespeare was 42, ‘Macbeth’ reveals the tale of a heroic Scottish soldier (Macbeth) who, after hearing a foretelling from three enchantresses that he will be King of Scotland, colludes with his wife (Lady Macbeth) to kill the reigning monarch (King Duncan) and his entire family, seizing the Kingship for himself and his wife. To bring about the prophecy, Macbeth embarks upon a killing spree, eventually leading to his own murder and the suicide of his wife. The play is full of murderous rage, tempered envy, destructive attacks, illusions of grandeur, delusions of certainty, power, omnipotence, fears of persecution, guilt, psychotic breakdown leading to suicide and the destruction of self.
‘Macbeth’ is arguably one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays, yet it provides an excellent example of an emotionally dysregulated couple to demonstrate Fisher’s concept of the proleptic imagination and proleptic fear. The Macbeths are a couple who inhabit a proleptic-state-of-mind. Although the couple is a work of fiction, Fisher describes ‘the Macbeths’ shared imagination or fear as a process of “inhabiting each other’s minds” (Greenblatt, 2004, p.134 quoted in Fisher, 2009, pp.34-35) and states that although current psychoanalytic theory might call it projective identification, he would like to introduce another way of viewing this tendency to reside in another’s mind. He attributes the first use of the word ‘proleptic’ in psychoanalytic thinking to Spitz, when talking about “gratification as the proleptic function of emotion” (Spitz, 1963, quoted in Fisher, 2009, p.36).
According to Freud, in the absence of repression impulses are discharged immediately by hallucinatory wish-fulfilments (Rycroft, 1995, p.157). So, what unconscious anxieties are most feared and in need of replacement by the hallucinatory proleptic-state-of-mind? I posit the unconscious anxiety most feared is the fear of separation from the maternal object. Clients who share a proleptic-state-of-mind may become ‘stuck’ in a stage of primitive development which is paranoid-schizoid in nature and both psychically and emotionally difficult to negotiate a way out of. I use the term ‘stuck’ to mean ‘immobilised by fear…and reluctant to accept the reality of …separateness and new accomplishments’ (Fisher, 1986, p.276).
Psychoanalytically delusions are fixed ideas, untrue and uninfluenceable by logic (Rycroft, 1995, p. 33), but hallucinations are an occurrence that happens in dreams (Rycroft, 1995, p. 68). Fisher therefore uses both terms psychotic or proleptic-state-of-mind and the hallucinatory-state-of-mind or negative-proleptic-imagination to mean a failure of the couple or individual to reality-test. Equally, a hallucinatory-state-of-mind could be referred to as being in a dream-like state.
Investment in either proleptic imagination or fear which can also be held individually, may be determined by which split-off part of the mother figure is feared the most hence bringing in the maternal object as described earlier. A non-mirroring bad-breasted mother may inspire investment in the proleptic fear. Whereas a good-breasted, all-giving mother may inspire investment in the proleptic imagination. Again, both investments in either the proleptic imagination or the proleptic fear is governed by the primitive fear of separation. One could argue that clients who invest in a proleptic imagination present with an emotional experience of fullness with the internal parental couple internalised as the good object, although idealised. This makes the proleptic imagination somewhat more developmental or aspirational as the client has possibly internalised a state of gratitude. Comparatively the proleptic fear is more destructive, emanating from an emotional experience of emptiness, as the internal parental couple is internalised as the bad object, denigrated and envied.
Fisher draws on three sources in his introduction of this term to current psychoanalytic thinking:
1. Bion’s analysis of psychotic patients in the 1950s, including his theory around the origin and nature of psychotic states of mind which is an important development of Freud’s concept of the reality principle.
2. Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Macbeth’ which he uses to describe as the proleptic imagination.
3. His own extensive work and experience with emotionally dysregulated clients, which is an important source for exploring the psychoanalytic theory.
Projective Identification, Unconscious Phantasy and Unconscious Beliefs
Melanie Klein’s theory of projective identification (“Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms”, 1946) is based on the idea that a part of one person can be firmly lodged into a part of another, and forgotten about in such a way that it is related to, and identified with as if it no longer has any relation to the person it first originated from. A new understanding has been achieved, which is shared and experienced between the couple as temporarily ‘real’. Although Klein sees projective identification as acquisitional gaining a preferred emotional state, it is also primarily evacuative as it involves displacing undesired parts of the self into an ‘other’. However, unlike the proleptic-state-of-mind projective identification is not hallucinatory. On the contrary, it has been found to form part of the regular defensive mechanisms in-play when negotiating a healthy distance between merger and separateness in couple relationships. (Morgan, 1995, p.34). Bion sees projective identification differently, as a form of communication, as the parts of the self that have been projected out are ‘split-off’, and though undesired are ‘valued’(Bion, 1962, p.31). Unconscious phantasy is the very thing that brings couples together – namely the couple fit. According to Hewison (2014, p.32) unconscious phantasy “refers to the unconscious image of what a couple relationship is like, should be like, or should not be like”. It is different to the proleptic-state-of-mind by virtue of its flexibility. Experientially, unconscious phantasies are not concrete and can be challenged within the regular therapeutic setting, often as a catalyst for change. Unconscious phantasy contains undesired and split off projected parts, and couples can collude to form an unconscious shared phantasy which can be ‘known’ about (Wiedermann, 2017). In contrast, the proleptic-state-of-mind contains unwanted parts of the psyche, forgotten about to ensure the clients survival. It is an internal narrative which seems inaccessible, and often not ‘known’ about by the individuals or couple who invest in it.
Schaefer in his review of Morgan’s (2010) paper on “Unconscious Beliefs About Being a Couple” refers to how Morgan’s ideas on ‘projective gridlock’ – a non-fluid projective process, has much in common with Fisher’s work on the proleptic-state-of-mind. Projective gridlock is seen as a way of “maintaining a particular state of mind dominated by the phantasy, of being with, or residing inside the object” (Morgan, 1995, p.38 quoted in Schaefer, 2010, p.57). On the surface there seems little difference between unconscious belief and the proleptic-state-of-mind. Morgan (2010, p. 37) states, “unconscious beliefs reside in the unconscious like facts until we become aware that they are in reality only beliefs”.
Curiosity and Doubt
Mary Morgan and Philip Stokoe in their paper “Curiosity” (2014) ruminate on Fisher’s ideas on curiosity. According to Fisher (2009) curiosity is an inherent component of our basic anthropological predisposition, and a force in maturing our capacity to think. The power behind curiosity is emotion and so curiosity holds within elements which denote our significant experience, felt or thought about. It is curiosity and doubt which fills and makes up the space between what is in the mind as a thought, wish or fear and that which is inevitably experienced as a reality. And it is curiosity that is missing in the minds of those who may share a proleptic state of mind or imagination. Curiosity engages the couple to develop a reality testing state of mind. To sometimes shed doubt on the assurity of the internal landscape or experience, which allows for a distance between the internal and external felt realities. Is there enough in the mind between the disputable internal, wished for or feared, reality and the debatable external reality? Can these states of mind be challenged or questioned at all? In its most basic form, curiosity is expressed as the drive to know (Morgan, 2014). It drives our doubt and allows the holder to play with hypothetical awareness of one’s feelings within a plethora of differing situations. To play out their feelings in their minds, safely, like a child might take his first steps out into the world whilst holding tightly onto their mother. To have multiple internal realities safely linked to multiple external realities – all experienced within a secure and protected environment.
In the paranoid-schizoid position thinking is hated and replaced by action and certainty. Morgan describes beautifully how a lack of curiosity fits in with the maintenance of this position:
“When L or H dominates K, they become two ‘rulers’ of the paranoid-schizoid universe, the ideal and hell, or perfection and chaos. In this universe, which is essentially the fundamentalist state of mind, the governing principle is pleasure, the mental state of choice is certainty, solutions are omnipotent, and difference is a threat because it challenges certainty. Thinking, help, and valuing are utterly despairing because all of them exist in a world of imperfection and lack of certainty. The ‘universe’ can only exist if curiosity is disabled. On the other hand, curiosity will re-emerge in such a universe when certainty fails. Thus, the lack of satisfaction that arises after a while in the face of a hallucination …opens the door to the impulse to know. It is this that leads to the overthrow of hallucination as a way of managing…and allows the ‘reality-principle’ to emerge” (Morgan, 2014, p. 54).
Inevitably, the task of the curious one is to think creatively whilst holding on to a feeling experience. He is asked to think feelingly or possibly empathise. Rycroft (1995, p.47) states empathy is the capacity to “feel oneself into the object and remain aware of one’s own identity as another person”. So, in order to empathise, one’s identity remains intact and is not lost to the other via either projective identification or proleptic imagination. To go back to the analogy of the baby or child holding on to the mother whilst exploring their world- empathy (as an adult) may possibly be demonstrated when the baby or child has sufficiently introjected the mother’s capacity in inspiring a feeling of safety, within the child, and subsequently achieves a sufficient state of independence, signalling a separate identity. The adult now knowing himself or herself to be a separate object- achieving a transient sense of merger where he or she may experience the others feelings as his or hers and therefore achieve an emotional understanding of a person separate to himself.
Merging with an ‘other’ can feel safe, possibly as an emotional reminder of the initial processes of attachment to the primary maternal caregiver. Where it becomes difficult in the adult relationship is when its presence inhibits a healthy separated attachment (Orbach, 2009, pp. 65-66). Merging signals an avoidance of curiosity about one’s own emotional experience, in preference to the absorption of an ‘others’ more commanding idea or emotional experience (Morgan, 2014, p. 44).
According to Fisher (2009, p.35), in the proleptic imagination or fear there is limited space between what is imagined or perceived in the mind, and a fact or their experienced reality. The shared state of mind is somewhere between an excited impatience (the inability to tolerate frustration) and the certainty of a hallucination (Nathans, 2009, p.58). Still, it is the certainty of the hallucination that marks both the proleptic imagination and the proleptic fear. We therefore arrive at the question which seems to be central to understanding the proleptic-state-of-mind as a concept; why is there no space between what is imagined or perceived in the mind, and a fact or their experienced reality? Reality seems to be too challenging or frightening to comprehend in those that share a proleptic-state-of-mind especially in terms of the relationship to the maternal object, making it difficult for the client to reality-test and experience their maternal object as separate to them.
Separation from Maternal Object
Fisher sees the proleptic imagination or fear as a dynamic which mirrors the primitive relationship between mother and baby (Fisher, 2009, p.40). Inspired by Bion’s theory of ‘maternal reverie’ or ‘alpha-function’ (Bion,1962) Fisher claims that the mother, trying to contain the fears and anxieties of the child, is drawn towards experiencing the baby’s wishes or needs as requests she must satisfy. She does this to turn what is in his mind as a thought into a reality, and therefore achieve what Segal (1957) calls “symbolic equation”. This is a primitive state of balance where both internal and external environments are experienced concretely. The primary merging of mother and baby could also be called ‘primary-maternal-preoccupation’ (Winnicott, 1960) where the mother sensitive to the baby’s needs, mirrors their gestures, providing a safe environment for the baby to tune in to his expressions and experience them as ‘real’. Both the mothers ‘knowing’ (attributed to her capacity to emotionally attune to her child) and the mothers doubts, help to create an environment which stimulates an emotional sense of what the baby is really feeling, thinking, expressing or fearing. Klein (1930) would see these processes as belonging to paranoid-schizoid functioning.
The capacity of the mother to acknowledge and contain varied emotional states, and to invite the baby to introject back a safe protected world, seems prerequisite to developing a child’s ability to recognise and feel safe with emotion in themselves, as well as in others. This may be evidence of Bion’s ‘container-contained’ position as detailed in his ‘theory of thinking’, demonstrating the mother’s capacity to develop thinking apparatus within the child through an emotional bond (Bion, 1962). Is Fisher (2009) claiming that a feature couples (who inhabit a proleptic-state-of-mind) may share, is an intrusive mother who could not allow herself to let her baby go? Who replaced the child’s gestures with her own and subsequently fostered an environment where difference and otherness were scary? Mainly it may depend upon how able the mother is to move between the position of being integrated with her child (knowing) and yet allow for new experiences to be projected into her. The intrusive act of ‘knowing’, rather than being a function of ‘maternal reverie’ which seeks to contain requests for food, warmth as well as anxieties and fears to satisfy the baby’s primitive needs, instead becomes a perverse dependence upon the primary carer. In these circumstances the mothers ‘knowing’ may over-satiate a greedy baby and create an atmosphere or an illusion of constant attunement. Mainly, it creates the basis for the development of paranoid anxieties or fears within the client should the certainty of the ‘all-knowing’ mother be questioned.
“In a proleptic-state-of-mind no distinction can be made between a wish and a demand. And either, or both, can be oppressed or controlled by what is experienced as the other continually being so demanding” (Fisher, 2009, p. 42). This makes couple communication sometimes impossible, as one partner may often feel overwhelmed by the other partners requests, and therapeutic interpretations may be impossible to digest even if they are correct (Steiner,1993, p.135), perhaps because there is limited room for doubt in their minds. As the shared proleptic imagination or fear passes from one in the partnership to the other the existence of doubt is often experienced in the other as a betrayal. The doubt sabotages certainty and drives curiosity (Fisher, 2009, p.41). The shared proleptic imagination or fear is the shared hallucination which is certain and true, and the fear of separation or abandonment drives the couple to jointly defend against curiosity (Morgan, 2010), thereby keeping the hallucination securely in place. The question arises why can the client not hold on to a reality-testing state of mind or even possess the ability to experience the often-subtle differences between what is in their mind and what may be an external reality? Is it simply a matter of excessive-attachment to the maternal object? These questions then lead me into discussing an important concept that revolutionized Fisher’s proleptic-state-of-mind through Bion’s account of the reality principle.
Bion’s Account of The Reality Principle
Bion declares that a child learns how to reality-test out of his or her learnings from experience. Experience dictated primarily by the mothers (primary caregivers) alpha- functioning. The ability of the mother to organise the child’s anxieties and fears, into a shared language that can be used to interpret the child’s emotions. Attending sufficiently to these feelings and making a judgement, which helps the child to think creatively about the position they occupy or feeling state they are in outside of the mother’s body and mind. Inspiring the use of imagination to reality-test the emotional experiences felt both the internal and external world of the baby and future adult (Bion, 1962, pp. 42-44).
Reality-testing emotional experience is a contextual task. It asks the ‘tester’ to imagine a range of emotions but also to contextualise the emotions for appropriateness. It dares the ‘tester’ to think or feel in several contrasting ways; and to pull in information from external as well as internal sources. In particular, it allows new information to influence the reality-testers emotional position or thinking. Reality-testing aims to be inclusive (holding on to differences) and does not seek to exclude other opposing points of view in preference to one single way of looking at an experience.
In his essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” Freud (1920) continued to develop his theory of personality (id, ego and super-ego) and the reality principle. Mental activity fell into two categories:
1. The Pleasure Principle: The principle focuses on satiation and impulse governed by innate instincts (ID).
2. The Reality Principle: The principle focuses on what is learned through the development of the personality and the meaning internal objects have on and in our external world. Babies do not possess the ability to reality test and exist in a world of symbols, impulses, delusions and hallucinations. Their internal and external worlds are merged and viewed as their ‘reality’.
Bion’s account of the reality principle mainly focuses on neither ‘subsequent’ (after, following) nor ‘subordinate’ (secondary, inferior) to the pleasure principle (Fisher, 2009). Bion sees both the pleasure and reality principle as ‘co-existent’ (parallel). Alluding, along with Freud, that it is both essential and developmental to reality test both the internal and external worlds we inhabit (Bion, 1962). Mainly, it requires the full use of our emotions and a curiosity about both our and other’s internal experiences, mediating our perceptions according to the external realities that emerge from the meeting of two differing internal realities. In essence, it encourages a constantly flowing emotional discourse between our and other’s internal and external thoughts, perceptions and felt realities. “If emotion is at the ‘heart of the matter’, the establishing and sustaining of a reality-orientated state of mind vis-à-vis our emotions is at the heart of both the developmental process and the analytic process” (Fisher, 2009, p.42).
Fisher (2009) states that a central dynamic which is often missing in those that share a proleptic imagination or fear is the ability to think feelingly. That is, to acquire a reality-testing state of mind where both reality and phantasy can be measured by linking one’s emotional experiences to current and past perceptions, making a judgement based on those thoughts, and culminating in an imagined action that is commensurate to the external world. The Idea on K and –K by Bion’s conceptualisation of thinking and non-thinking states is therefore introduced.
Bion’s Idea on K and -K
Coming to Bion’s Idea on K and –K, in the simplest of definitions L is loving the other, H is hating the other, K is knowing the other (Morgan, 2014, p.43), and -K is the lie. Bion’s Idea of thinking and non-thinking states which is K and –K respectively interrelates concepts such as container and contained, maternal reverie and the development of thinking. The K concept is the link that is established between therapist and patient. In his explanation of -K Grotstein (1997) suggests: “The ego, in seeking to disguise, repress, or alter the unconscious, becomes disingenuous and dissembles the truth. The lie (-K), in Bion’s thinking, is a negative faith that replaces the faith that either never appeared sufficiently or which defaulted because of the loss of innocence”. To state simply, in the proleptic-state-of-mind there is an over prevalence of not wanting to ‘know about’ experiences, and thoughts that threaten to change the state of mind the couple share. The client displays a resistance to learning anything new. Bion (1962, pp. 95-99) stresses that:
“Learning depends on the capacity for the maternal object to remain integrated and yet lose rigidity. This is the foundation of the state of mind of the individual who can retain his knowledge and experience and yet be prepared to reconstrue past experiences in a manner that enables him to be receptive of a new idea.”
However, it seems to be missing and in its stead is an envy and need to be omnipotent. Object Relations Theory relates envy to persecution anxiety or psychotic anxiety (Klein, 1930) and ‘nameless dread’ (Bion, 1962, p. 96), the dread of total annihilation or loss of identity. “The violence of emotion that is associated with envy and can be one of the factors in the personality in which – K is in evidence, affects the projective processes so that far more than the fear of dying is projected. Indeed, it is as if virtually the whole personality was evacuated by the infant” (Bion, 1962, p. 96). This gives value to the transferential feeling of catastrophe experienced in the consulting room when faced with any idea of separation. It would seem as though the envy allows the client to have an emotional experience of the bad breast, denigrate it and then deny the power it yields over them by destroying it. However, there is an equal emotional realisation that if the provider or maternal object is destroyed, so will they be. Hence the omnipotent need to keep the object close and compliant so their identity and chance to live, carries on.
Bion continues that -K can be seen in some clients who are obsessed with omnipotent control of their objects. “Some patients who are concerned to prove their superiority to the analyst by defeating his attempts at interpretation can be shown that they are misunderstanding the interpretations to demonstrate that an ability to misunderstand is superior to an ability to understand. In –K, the new idea is stripped of its value and the group in turn feels devalued by the new idea. In –K, neither group nor idea can survive partly because of the destruction incident to the stripping and partly because of the product of the stripping process (Bion,1962, p. 95).
Essentially, if we transfer this thinking to the proleptic state of mind and the preference for the client to stay relating whilst in a delusion, we may be able to say: In –K, any attempt to separate the couple will be met with profound resistance and devalued as a method to engage their understanding. Nothing is gained from the process of separation as the couple is left alone with no viable sense of self to either know or live on with. All that is left is death and destruction – the ultimate catastrophe.
The Creative Couple and The Good Enough Marriage
It seems to me that those who are experiencing a proleptic-state-of-mind are perhaps stuck in a stage of development that was challenging to negotiate through formatively and continues to satisfy on only one level. For us to understand the difficulties of clients who are relating proleptically, it may be of benefit to think about the emotional states they find challenging that other couples seem to be able to negotiate through more easily. Mary Morgan’s (2014) concept of the ‘creative couple’ and Christopher Clulow’s (1993) view of the ‘good-enough marriage’, inspired by Winnicott’s working model of the ‘good-enough mother’ (Winnicott, 1952, cited in Abram, 2007, pp. 220-1) are highlighted
A creative couple seem to be able to demonstrate the capacity for inclusion or exclusion as well as the capacity for separateness or difference; they can both ‘be’ oneself and ‘see’ oneself in the relationship and have the capacity to be both dependant and autonomous. Morgan (2014) explains that a creative couple are able to continually create something new within a relationship. They do this by taking on the other’s differing perspective and allowing it to affect a change in their thoughts and emotions, thereby creating something new. “This creativity becomes possible because a state of mind has been achieved in which two minds, symbolised by the adult couples ‘sexual intercourse’, can come together and create a third. A new thought, perspective or way of thinking symbolised by a ‘baby’” Morgan (2014, p.117). In effect, they can hold on to an identity of their own while taking in an ‘others’ contrasting viewpoint. They can sit with it, not immediately distance themselves from the discomfort of dissimilarity, and after careful ingestion make a judgement inspired by the others variation, resulting in a new thought or new action. And they can do this constantly, while tolerating their emotional frustration, even anger towards their partner, all without losing any love or affection for them.
Clulow (1993, p.126) in his book “Rethinking Marriage: Private and Public Perspectives” advocates that one way of measuring health in a relationship is to check the degree of equivalence between inner and outer realities. The higher the degree of similarity the more self-worth, trust and confidence in making judgements. Such a positive state of being often provides the groundwork for a similarly positive state of mind. Low congruence leads to anxiety, lack of trust, social detachments and troubled mental health.
When thinking of those who share a proleptic imagination or fear this seems to reign true. In proleptic congruence a couple’s self-esteem is elevated, trust and understanding are felt, and anxiety is minimised. This seems a desirable achievement for the duo if it were not that doubts, frustrations, conflict and curiosity were absent . Clulow (1993, p.126) continues that health brings feelings of aliveness. So, although a healthy person’s internal world is related to their external world it is not ‘dead’ but alive. I believe he may be referring to the aliveness of emotion which allows the healthy person to experience a variety of feeling and connections to others; feeling positive whilst also confidently ingesting theirs and an ‘other’s’ failures and fears. Clulow (1993, p.132) concludes that the toleration of ambivalence is a prerequisite for a healthy relationship. Defences are not necessarily an issue as all marriages are defensive and “need to preserve difference” to make them live. It is when the defences are firm and inflexible, making it hard to know the other, that issues arise.
The proleptic state of mind offers the couple a unique position of holding an internal reality which is emotional impermeable whilst living in an external delusion of permeability. A seductive hallucination which serves to defend the investors in the delusion from full knowledge of either themselves or of each other. Fisher (p.48) has demonstrated what is missing in the emotional experiences of those couples who share a proleptic state of mind, imagination or fear; who holds back these couples from being either in a good enough marriage or a creative couple is the absence of curiosity and doubt.

It is a sense of certainty that marks this state of mind and a lack of questioning which is a feature in this dynamic and seen in the couples I bring to my paper. I would concur with Fisher and Clulow in that whilst the proleptic imagination may be experienced as soothing when ‘what is imagined is positive’, becomes horrendous when the shared imaginings are negative.
The first couple trying to work their way through the inevitable disappointments when finally confronted with the others difference and their understanding of the reliance and investment in their certain shared and positive hallucination. Their united proleptic imagination did not lead to satisfaction and there is a doubt, carried by the wife (K), that their reality was in fact a delusion. Though both are perhaps scared and disappointed in their selves and the other, the husband (J) continues to try and re-establish their shared hallucination to make sense of his external reality.
The second couple resistant to change, frightened of the difference and disabled by the thought of psychic and emotional separation. They are locked into a possible negative proleptic imagination where what is imagined forms part of their shared fear; therefore, propelling the couple to act out their proleptic fear by demanding that the other, and I as the therapist stay in a merged and helpless state of being.
The Macbeths were ‘childless lovers’ (Fisher 2009 p.43). Their union did not bring forth children and one may wonder if this was due to any physical ailment on either the partners’ part or purely because they were childless as they did not have sex.
There is a feature between the couples mentioned in this paper, in that neither of the couple has had sex for 3 years or more. It seems that sex may not be able to exist between two parties where there is an absence of friction or otherness or difference. There is nothing physical to bring together in a couple who are already psychically merged. Curiosity (a strong desire to know more) and desire (a strong wish t have more) are usually present in the insatiable coming together of two different bodies with two differing curiosities and desires.
In the couples mentioned here, there is an over prevalence of enmeshment and concrete ‘knowing’. Ironically, in both couples, there is one who is more invested in keeping or holding on to the proleptic state of mind. Possibly, seeking an element of freedom or independence, not otherwise experienced in the couple. Like Lady Macbeth may have drawn Macbeth into a proleptic state of mind by appealing to something longed for in Macbeth (to be a father and possibly the father of kings). It is interesting to note that both the couples struggle with their internal narratives around having children, With the first couple J and K, J’s original willingness to become a father is recounted again and again as the primary betrayal that the couple have never been able to mourn. Whereas the second couple, S and E, childlessness seems to be under the auspice of what Freud referred to as the Macbeths motivation to murder (Bloom 2005 pg.177). He speaks of the rage within as propelling the couple forward in insanity to both destroy in anger that which they could not have whilst additionally trying desperately to create something living, breathing, possessing a life force of its own. This speaks to S and E as a couple who are also artists or sculptors or creators and to S’s need to prove potency by exercising his rage within the couple and therapeutic sessions. Both couples struggle with staying in the present when confronted with the emotional and psychic difference of the partner. J and K quieten their doubt or anger by promoting an environment of guilt or blame which then instils a feeling of disloyalty which cannot be abided in either. Coming to S and E, they use monologues which are wrapped in certainty and faultlessness to keep the other at bay, whilst attacking the difference from a safe polarised position.
Nathan (2009) states that couples who share a proleptic state of mind may not be able to stay after an emotional explosion, listen and then talk through their differences and individual emotional experiences. It is indeed very difficult for them to bear their own and the ‘others’ frustrations to sufficiently listen and process the betrayal that difference evokes within them. It is interesting to bear in mind that in the thoughts of couples who share this dynamic, there is usually room for only one emotional experience (Fisher 2007). However, the couples remain oblivious to feelings being stirred in either themselves or the other partner. They often, as Segal (1957) expresses, reach a state of symbolic equation where both their internal and external realities are the same. “What is crucial in these dynamics is the irony that while the experience is so very familiar, the participants actually know or understand very little about it.” A frustrating position to be in for all involved in therapeutic endeavours.
J and K
J and K are a couple in their early fifties, married for approximately 25 years and have three children (9,14 and 16). They came to me after 2 years in psychosexual therapy. The couple were not having sex and K, the wife, had taken this on as her fault as she felt a lack of drive or desire. It was later found that K had both drive and desire but not for her husband. She was feeling overwhelmed by his perceived demands and felt it necessary to put in place several boundaries which assured her privacy and facilitated her need for separateness.
J, the husband, is in turmoil. How did this couple come to this? A point of separation. Despite knowing the emotional trail that led up and contributed to the need in the other to achieve independence he chooses to not ‘know’ and sits in a state of –K throughout the sessions (Bion, Chp 14). J does not know as he cannot or does not want to hate K. He emotionally experiences her in isolation, by remaining positive always and not allowing space for doubt, anger and possibly hatred out of their relationship which according to Bion (1962) may mean they are not in a relationship at all.
“An emotional experience cannot be conceived of in isolation from a relationship”. Moreover, Fisher (2009, p. 1223) in “The Emotional Experience of K” states, “ultimately, the intrusions of L-impulses and H-impulses contaminate curiosity, the seeking to know the truth of emotional experience, and this in turn can destroy the capacity for distinguishing between what is real and what is not” (Fisher 2009 p.1223 cited in Morgan 2014 p.49)
We could postulate that J does not know K as something about her personality alludes him. He is not in possession of a piece of knowledge that may provide a clearer picture or image in his mind (Bion, 1962). Or maybe the image in his mind does not match the image experienced externally (Nathans, 2009). Either way, there is an absence of curiosity which might, if he were courageous, breach the gap between his frustration and his reality as he experiences it (Morgan, 2014). Instead of forging forward with an enquiring mind J chooses to continue to cajole K into sharing to his internal reality. As physical separation seems more and more likely after each session, the internal conflict in him becomes increasingly more profound. As Fisher (2009, p. 50) suggests his experiences have the “appearance of reality, the feeling of reality, but they are not reality”. J is in disorder as his external reality and feelings are not in sync with his internal reality and sense of feeling. Externally he is experiencing a couple, broken and bewildered from years of emotional inauthenticity, whilst internally experiencing a contrasting couple view – a positive, hopeful and dynamic reality where they are flawless, robust and able to take on the world in any capacity. His constant question and genuine plea, after years of not questioning the other’s experience and reality is “Why can K not see what I see. Why can she not see how perfect and amazing we are together? How has this happened? How… why has K given up on us? I just don’t get it”
In a solo session, J, filled up with understandable anger at holding on tightly to someone who no longer desires to merge, and who, multiple times has professed no desire for him anymore, decrees – J: “I’m done. I’m done convincing K to love me, to want to be with me. This isn’t how a couple should be.”
Me: “How should a couple be?”
J: “I deserve to be with someone who shares my world view. Someone who I can give all my positive feelings to and who happily wants to take them, as they think well of me and want me as much as I want them. I don’t understand why K doesn’t want me. I love her, we are great parents with balanced, socially conscious children. I can’t force her to see what I see. I tried that but it’s not working (exhausted). I genuinely don’t understand why? I’m a good person. I’ve got a lot to give. I gave it all to her. I guess it just isn’t enough.”
The desperation to merge overwhelms K with emotion. She feels suffocated and unable to continually bear the feelings of guilt it instils within her. For so long she has given up her voice, projectively choosing to allow J to be the intellectual and certain one within the relationship. She had found a man whom she loved and felt safe with and like her father was emotionally distant and like her grandmother did not require her to question, only accept the view offered. She feels she has now come to a place where she wants to hear her doubting voice.
K: “I have doubts, I have a lot of doubts. They were there from the beginning.
– But perhaps K chose to bury them in the couples shared adulated view. An inflated view which has placed too much pressure on her to be perfect and idealised. She is adamant she will no longer comply and live in a dissatisfactory emotional state. If giving up their shared hallucination is what she must do to get to a place of emotional authenticity and balance, then this is a step she is willing to take. Since her mother’s death, grandmother’s death and acknowledgement of father’s emotional distance, she has achieved a sense of separation from her internal parental couple that has not annihilated her but has instead inspired her to want to know more about herself. As she becomes more curious about herself, she is realising she has more to love about herself than previously thought. As she pulls her projections away from J, the need to merge and sit within the proleptic imagination dissipates. Her request to be curious and to vocalise her doubts collides with J’s insistence on the certainty of the hallucination. Projectively they are at an impasse in their relationship (Rosenfeld). Going through the menopause in some way signals a change she was reluctant to go through at first but now welcomes as it speaks to the end of one phase of her life and the beginning of another. In this next phase, she is committed to being emotionally open and exercising her voice by being curious and not live within a dissatisfactory delusion. She is on a new path to discovering her identity, culturally and within her family, walking towards the reality of her feelings, and this is exciting and longed for albeit challenging for the couple to come to terms with. It is important to mention, that with this couple, a shift in their shared dynamic was only possible once the hallucination had been named and thought about.
S and E
The couple (S and E) ‘inhabit my mind’ (p.40). They are seductive in presentation and lure me into a state where I am preoccupied with them. The level of intrusiveness into my mind is disturbing much of the time and fills me with a tense and anxious feeling of never getting it right. I am rendered helpless and in need of apologising for my many mistakes in not having them at the forefront of my mind in a caring and loving way – all the time and in every way. Mistakes are hard to process for this couple. I must remain without fault, in an idealised position, for the couple to feel safe enough to ingest what I am feeding them.
I feel like I represent the parental or authoritative figure. The one who should know more, see more, be more, be everything they need all the time. Because I have been assigned this lofty, impossible position I consequently am set up for failure and too often become the punishing parent or persecutory authoritative figure whose actions towards them are perceived as diminutive. The hard thing to bear in the emotional exchange within the room is that when I inevitably fail them, my failure is seen as deliberate, malicious and cruel. I am a hostile object whose opposition must be defended against. I am an aggressive force trying to sabotage the therapy and any good that may come from it or to them. The attack on the object I represent to them is swift and vicious. Symbolically or transferentially, I am literally pinned up against the wall and asked to account for my mindless cruelty. Often this request to account for my brutal unkindness is consciously verbalised. By presenting another perspective and asking them to consider it (namely assimilate it into their minds and hold onto it, albeit temporarily) I am being antagonistic, spiteful, rigid and argumentative. I get back from the couple what I am perceived to have given them – harsh intimidation. A hostile encounter where I have no other choice but to ‘back down and surrender’. The ‘magic circle’ remains impenetrable and the only position I can occupy is the one where I am looking in at them. I cannot affect them by any means, only suggest ways where their conflicts can be nullified. Ways to get rid of the difference so that peace and bliss can be shared and relied upon once more. It is worth bearing in mind this often means that one in the couple must give up their resistance and surrender to the longed-for shared hallucination. This request seems both hysterical and obsessional whilst also being somewhat desperate and schizoid. I feel this sense of desperate paranoia characterises the negative proleptic imagination, where what is feared is imagined as a concrete reality.
One may wonder what does S see that no one else does? It is often unsettling to see the picture or image in his mind pass to his partner. Transferentially, I watch her struggle to accept the view but she accepts it and two then collude to keep the hallucination alive by vigorously keeping my curiosity and doubt out of their relationship. The hallucinative fear, which is experienced internally as a real event, becomes acted out in the transference and projected and experienced as an authentic fact within the external space. There is no space between that which is experienced internally and that which is suffered externally. Both are felt to be real. There is an utter absence of curiosity within this couple. I am directed consciously by the more omnipotent mind (S), to be curious only about the other, and not of him. Transferentially,I feel how dangerous it may seem for the couple to allow a curious mind to break into the stonger personality. I speculate that he may be the key to keep the proleptic-state-of-mind alive. To engage in doubt in this mind would perhaps lead to the breaking down of a delusion the couple have come to feel secure within.
Fisher (1999,p.40), I am not fulfilling my role as a ‘good mother’ who mirrors the baby’s needs and desires and turns them into a felt and experienced reality for the baby. I am being a ‘bad mother’, a damaging mother who leaves her babies helpless and unable to survive. If I do not fulfil their wishes or needs or desires in the way they wish for them to be satisfied or seen or taken in, then I cannot be their mother. I must be an imposter, under the guise of a mother – I cannot be trusted. This is how I countertranferentially experience the couple S and E, as an imposter or outsider cannot be trusted. Proleptically, I am feared and internally I am not trusted. I believe, at times, the couple perceive an adversity toward them to be both possible and promised. Therapy, in these circumstances, has seemed unfeasible. It has not been possible with this couple to achieve a point where they can see any other emotional experience other than the one, they hold in their mind or that they hold together – which, must be the same.
Fisher (1999, pp. 43-44) conveys that it is of immense value to the therapeutic endeavour to help couples recognise and appreciate their own and their partners cloaked true self’s. Accessible through their emotional experience. However, with both couples I bring to this paper, there is a distinct push towards staying within the ‘factual reality of an experience’ (Fisher 1999, p.159 cited in Morgan(2014),p.49). Discovering the different emotional reality of the partner is felt countertransferentially as a catastrophe from which only death of self can occur. Investment in the proleptic-state-of-mind experienced as a requirement for the couple to survive and be happy. In a recent session, the couple explained how surreal sessions had become. They both felt cocooned in an imaginary world, experiencing reality when they left. I asked if perhaps we could think of their view differently. Wondering with them if possibly the sessions were real and they, in the external world, an illusion they jointly created. This is evidence of the couple experiencing the proleptic imagination by dismissing an ‘others’ emotional experience in preference for their own, as it does not match their externally perceived reality. There may be a shared assertion by the couple that my insight is poison, as my view challenges their shared hallucination (Steiner, 1993, p. 135). This impels the couple to defend against the reality of separation in the room. Therapy is used as a vehicle to keep them in a hallucinatory state of emotional attunement to me (even through the conflicts with each other) and again separation is kept far away. Conceivably, this is where I need to be – a merged container prompting K, alongside them through the process of -K. Sandler (1976) stresses “how an internal relationship between the self” and the object can become “actualised within the therapist”, with the therapist led to act out the client’s infantile relationship (cited in Steiner, 1993, p. 140). Discovering the different emotional reality of the partner is felt countertransferentially as a catastrophe from which only death of known self can occur. Investment in the proleptic-state-of-mind may be experienced as a requirement for the couple to survive and be happy.
Fisher (2009, p.43) speaks of Lady Macbeth drawing “her husband into a proleptic-state-of-mind”, in which he sees not only her wish for admiration fulfilled (by him being crowned as King) but also his wish to bear male offspring realised too. In their shared hallucination they are the epitome of a creative couple. Bringing forth life and reigning with supreme abundance and power. But it is she that “draws him back in”. She who cuts off his curiosity and doubt and appeals to his inner wishes and desires of being a father and a powerful father at that. She has taken the role of the faultless mother who satiates wishes, needs and desires.
The Difference between Therapy Working and Therapy Failing
Fisher states that working with such couples who hold a proleptic-state-of-mind as a central dynamic within their relationship, involves the therapist being able to sit with the certainty of both internal and external feeling (Fisher, 2009, p. 50). It means straddling a position between a fleeting psychotic inner world and a schizoid external world where representations of the inner world are seen as real and projected into the external world, where they are related to and often perceived of as real too. I would agree with Fisher in that work cannot be done until the hallucinatory state the couple are confused in is highlighted and seen by both in the couple (Fisher, 2009, p.50). I posit that just as Bion (1962) believes projective identification to be ’an unconscious communication’, the proleptic imagination is also as Fisher (2009, p.51) states ’a communication of emotional experience’. In the couples I have seen whom I believe demonstrate a shared proleptic imagination, there is often room for only one emotional experience within the couple dynamic. Introducing them to the possibility of another or even multiple emotional experiences is a hard reality to introduce. However, this is the necessary work. Both the proleptic fears and the proleptic imaginations must be seen for what they are – pictures in the mind, creative visualisations, narratives that are flexible and indicating of only one possible reality. They are not concrete and unmoveable. They are real only up until the point that another image comes and takes its place. . Both in the couple are required to see the pervasiveness of the hallucination within their couple dynamic before work can start on wondering together about the function of the hallucination and why it was necessary for them both to invest in it.
Fisher states that understanding is not a way of overcoming difference but rather ; ………
1. Tempting though it may be interpretations should be aimed away from the individual and instead at the couple and their split-off projections into each other. Namely the proleptic imagination they invest in
2. Part of the therapeutic endeavour must be a robust exploration of the differences and consequent misunderstandings the couple have. The therapist must help the couple to listen to what the other is emotionally saying, not actually saying.
3. Enormous utility in not responding to decisions as if there are fact. But to engage with them as efforts to emotionally communicate with the other. (Speak of K’s insistence to separate from early in the therapy and supervisor’s direction to not take it as a fact but a possible other emotional request.)
4. Nathan believes it is of importance to name the game. To name the narcissistic need of vanquishing the other partner to promote and exalt the flagging self -esteem of the self. I think Fisher agrees but falls short of naming the projective processes involved in facilitating this exchange. He instead asks that the therapist name the proleptic imagination as the vehicle of object-relating. I think this is because of the nature of the dynamic. To name projective processes we require clients to think feelingly to have the ability to reality test the space between what is in their mind and the mind of the other. To doubt their ability to contain all their anxieties and fears and so locate them in an ‘other’ for safe keeping. This is precisely what those who share a proleptic state of mind struggle with. Fisher says that the ‘state of certainty that accompanies strong emotions can make it difficult to think feelingly”. Secondly, interpreting projective processes requires the client see the existence of two separate identities, again this is challenging for those who share a proleptic state of mind. Identities as well as thoughts and images are merged together and seen as representations of both their internal and external reality. How can you project into another when there is in mind, no other? Thirdly, both internal and external realities are concrete and not up for interpretation. They are experienced as true and authentic and not just one possible reality out of many, even though this is perhaps what they are. I understand that in these circumstances it may be better to name what it is that they share which may not be working for them as a reality.

Fisher (2009) states that it is not until both partners can see the “images, the stories, even the accusations as a communication of emotional experience” and not as a concrete reality that they can then start to let go of the certainty of the hallucination.
The thesis provides fundamental insights regarding the overall concept of the prolipeptic state of the mind. The discussion draws from literature and case studies to highlight on the concept. The good enough mother sees the omnipotence of the baby and seeks to include it into herself, with confidence, giving rise to a child whose true self can be experienced, tolerated and seen. The baby’s phantasy of possibly destroying the mother with its aggression and power is placated by her mother’s ability to introject and make safe the baby’s more destructive projections. However, the not good enough mother is either unable or unwilling to take in the baby’s more destructive or desperate emotions, instead replacing them with her own gestures and emotions. Leading to a compliant, frightened child and the beginnings of possibly the false -self. I wonder if the proleptic imagination is another false-self vehicle employed by the frightened baby to keep the illusion of sameness alive. The illusion of sameness and fear of difference initially set up by the maternal objects primary failure to make difference and aggression safe.

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