Channel 4: Psychoanalysis and Brexit

Susanna Abse, Chair of The British Psychoanalytic Council, will be appearing in three short Channel 4 films about how psychoanalysis can be applied to clarify and enhance the understanding of the deep divisions that emerged in the UK following the 2016 EU referendum. We hope the first edition will air on 18 August 2019.

Over the next two weeks, Susanna will be travelling around the country with the Channel 4 couch, talking to people and exploring how Leavers and Remainers have responded to a common inner sense of fragility with opposing states of mind: Leavers steering towards affirming autonomy and self-determination, Remainers needing closeness and attachment to feel safe.

Susanna’s article ‘Brexit – Trauma, Identity and the Core Complex’, an in-depth psychoanalytic insight into Brexit and its causes, was published in the summer issue of New Associations.

Susanna Abse is a consultant psychoanalytic psychotherapist who has worked in private practice with couples, parents and individuals since 1991. She is the current Chair of The British Psychoanalytic Council and was CEO of Tavistock Relationships from 2006-16.  She has been a member of the Department of Health’s Action for Choice in Therapy Committee, and sat as an expert advisor on many research and governmental advisory groups; including an NSPCC project to develop an early intervention for families at risk of domestic violence.

Brexit – Trauma, Identity, and the Core Complex

It’s a cold Thursday in February and I am sitting in my consulting room with a couple in the process of separating. Nigel Leaveson and Anna Romaine are angry and uncompromising despite my best endeavours to help them mourn their relationship.  They cannot agree about anything – who will live where; how often each of them will have the children; and even how they will tell their 7-year-old daughter of their decision to part.  It seems hopeless – we are stuck. This is not a particularly unusual scene – every week, in my consulting room, I am witness to these kinds of intransigent states of mind.  Many couples, and particularly those who come for help during or following a separation, seem unable to make any concession or to shift from their fixed positions and the more uncertainty there is in their lives, the more the couple behave as if to give any concession would lead to utter annihilation.  What is striking however is that this kind of extreme state of mind is now not confined to my consulting room, I can witness it daily both in myself and in others, in the whole, sorry, Brexit mess.

Many writers, such as Anthony Barnett (2017) have observed that betrayals. of trust are at the root of Brexit.  Deep and lasting wounds arising from such betrayals as the deceptions around the Iraq war, the 2008 financial crash, and the 2009 expenses scandal, have led to a loss of faith with the status quo. Compounding this, since 2010, austerity economics has led to much greater hardship for many families. Money has been short, job insecurity rife and services that previously could be depended on, have disappeared. All in all, could the sum of these events be understood as amounting to large group, national trauma?

My couple Nigel and Anna also had experienced considerable trauma in their lives. Both had grown up with absent fathers and depressed and controlling mothers which had led to a series of disturbing transitions. In their recent life together, Nigel had been made redundant just as their first child was born, and Anna had lost her mother to cancer soon after.  The early adversity they had experienced had, no doubt, weakened their capacity to manage these later challenges. leaving them fragile and mistrustful.  They shored up against their fragility with a shared hatred of dependency or weakness.  Nigel expresses this by being dismissive and cold while Ana defends herself against her fear of dependency by being controlling and manipulative.  She is very scared of losing him (though much of that is projected into the children), he is consciously very desperate to get away.  Their marriage, which is about to be discarded, has finally broken because Anna, in response to Nigel’s sexual and emotional coldness, has begun an affair. A betrayal too far.

We know, trauma isn’t good for people. It unsurprisingly generates mistrust; it creates fear and then anger. Trauma increases our wish to be self-sufficient and not depend on others – it can distort our relationship to reality and make it hard for us to work out where our best interests lie. Trauma makes us retreat and avoid collaboration.  We pull the drawbridge up, fearing others as a potential threat.  We find it harder to share or to tolerate ambiguity. Trauma can engender paranoid-schizoid (Klein 1946) states of mind, where idealisation and denigration predominate and where empathy and concern can feel hard to access.

Underpinning, this less empathic and more rigid state of mind is a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity. When we feel we have little ourselves or feel under threat, sharing with others can become tricky. And while the consequences of the global 2008 crash were very serious, what followed was worse. Just when people needed to feel secure, government enacted policies which did the very opposite, cutting services and undermining institutions that people had become reliant on and which supported family stability (the central source of human security being, of course, the family). 

When I talk about security here, I’m emphasising that we cannot separate seemingly external pressures such as financial security and physical safety from the internal feeling of emotional security. When we feel insecure, we need a sense that there is someone to turn to who will take care of us. Government can provide that underpinning confidence and good leaders can serve as parental figures who, in times of heightened anxiety, we can turn to in our minds. Governments can help people accept suffering; they can encourage us all towards the common good and can create solidarity around hardship. But when we feel that the common good is replaced by self-interest and manipulation, then trust is lost and the establishment becomes not a protective parent but rather a rapacious and neglectful one to be distrusted and resisted. This blending, of inner and outer realities is going on all the time inside each of us, and when we are calm and secure, we can usually distinguish between the two. However, when times are not calm, nor secure, helping people to distinguish what is real and what is felt, is the task of mature leadership and this kind of leadership is something that seems to be sorely lacking.

David Tuckett (2008), in his work on uncertainty in the financial sector, describes how when faced with doubts, people may become highly attracted to certain kinds of conviction narratives and Phantastic Objects, which can in turn fuel paranoid-schizoid mental states. Phantastic objects are subjectively very attractive “objects” (people, ideas or things) which are highly exciting and idealised. These Phantastic Objects seem to provide a solution to uncertainty; providing some belief that this will satisfy our deep desires. One might postulate that the idea of Brexit is suffused with this kind of manic idealisation, and that the sense of certainty and conviction that surrounds its promotion by the “hard Brexiters” is Phantastic.  Nevertheless, it can seem to provide a deeply longed for solution to hardship, anger and suffering.

Thinking about the way trauma affects whole societies is a relatively new concept in public health. Mostly, it has been applied to more grossly traumatising experiences such as slavery, war and genocide. Perhaps however we need to understand that the undermining of felt security also has an impact on whether we remain tolerant, inclusive and yes, sane as a society. Politicians, in my view, have in the last decades undermined felt security and we are now in the midst of its consequences.

Vamik Volkan (2014), a Turkish Cypriot psychoanalyst who is internationally known for his work on bringing together conflictual groups for dialogue and mutual understanding, has described how after large group societal trauma individuals can feel a sense of victimisation together with a sense of being dehumanised. As a result of trauma, people can, at first, feel humiliated, with hidden shame about their circumstances and, in this situation, people can find it difficult to be appropriately assertive. It is interesting to note therefore how little overt protest we saw after the 2008 crash and how long it took for a sense of injustice to crystallise. Perhaps, many people felt more ashamed than angry about their reduced circumstances, and the rhetoric about “the underserving poor” compounded this.

Volkan also says that in response to large group trauma one can see an increase in projection. In the face of the shame and humiliation that is created (such as when you need help from a system (the DWP) that is contemptuous and toxic towards that neediness), projections that blame “others” can increase as a way of protecting and defending oneself against a pervasive feeling of failure. The sense that “others” were bringing the nation down and were the source of individual and societal problems was most stark in the increasingly hostile attitude to immigrants, minority groups and refugees.

And, Volkan also reminds us that trauma also increases the need for an investment in a large group identity as a way of shoring up the inner sense of fragility. The feeling of being small and powerless can be eased by identifying with a large group and this large group can then be invested with strength, nobility and pride. In the Brexit propaganda, it is clear that that Englishness becomes the repository for all the good, and “others” (immigrants) may carry the unwanted and discarded “bad”.

So, we could simply surmise that the vote for Brexit was a reaction to trauma and that those most traumatised were susceptible to the promise of the Phantastic Object of leaving the EU.  Can we, however, leave it at that? Does this satisfy our curiosity around the utter stand-off that we are seeing?  Or does this simply pathologise Brexiters, leaving Remainers as those who are functioning in the depressive position!  It is clear to me that many (I include myself) on both sides of this debate are in the grip of something very powerful.

An answer to this stand-off might come from psychoanalytic therapy with couples. One of the universal issues that couples bring when they come to see me is the often-challenging struggle between dependence and independence. This struggle which is universal involves how we manage the dichotomy between our need for, and dependence on others, and our need to be autonomous and self-governing. Mervyn Glasser (1979), described this as the “core complex”. Other clinicians have described a similar idea as the “agoraphobic- claustrophobic dilemma”, outlining how the deep-seated longing for intimacy and closeness and the need autonomy and separateness is in constant tension. The pulling away from the other to become separate arouses fears of abandonment and survival anxiety (Remain voters?) which then pushes us back towards closeness. But the experience of closeness invites claustrophobic anxieties and fears of losing control (Leave voters), so we pull away again.

Whilst I believe these tensions are universal in relationships, in my practice it is clear that those couples whose individual identity is fragile and whose sense of self is poor, struggle with this dilemma more acutely. To be comfortable with being dependent and close to another, one has to a sense of confidence in oneself and a feeling that one’s individuality is secure. Primal fears are easily activated when identity and selfhood is weak, and trauma and uncertainty can make them even harder to manage.  Couples, who struggle with this most profoundly, can come to the conclusion that separation is the only solution.  Ironically, however, in the emotional maelstrom of divorce and the uncertainty it generates, paranoid processes, rather than diminishing, often increase, leading to even more bitter, polarised arguments and enactments.

In the political writings of Anthony Barnett and Fintan O’Toole (2018) they have argued that the English identity has been denigrated and devalued. The changes wrought on English identity by the loss of Empire and the moves towards independence within the union have perhaps led, to what Volkan, calls “exaggerated large-group narcissism” denoting a process where a large group shores up its identity by a belief in its superiority. The Brexit rhetoric has been full of this narcissism, perhaps to counter the sense of loss and fragility.  The push from all parts of the union other than England towards greater autonomy and separation has, no doubt, depreciated the sense of English specialness and pride.

In this context, did England then need to assert itself and is this fragility at the heart of that compelling call to arms to “take back control”?

In couples, where identity is weak, we see both a particular terror about colonisation and a corresponding fear of separateness.  In the bitter arguments between Nigel Leaveson and Anna Romaine I could see that both felt that it was a “winner takes all” situation.  If either gave ground they would be routed, taken over and subdued into utter submission. Divorce lawyers were enlisted so each of them could establish a sense of “taking back control” in the face of their polarised anxieties.

As we know the slogan to “take back control” was deeply potent during the campaign, playing on fears around colonisation.  This anxiety has been stoked over many decades as successive politicians have come back from negotiations with the EU as if they are conquering heroes, who have triumphed (or not) over a bullying and controlling other.  Politicians on both sides of the house have compounded the EU in our imagination as an enormous, faceless and rigid bureaucracy shaping our daily lives and from whom we have to constantly wrestle back concessions and agreements.

But once again, I am focussing on Nigel and his fears, losing what Mary Morgan (2018) calls my “couple state of mind” in which my attention is given to the shared aspects of Nigel and Ana’s differences.  After all, the remain voice is equally shrill and full of feeling.  Feelings that are, I suspect, fuelled by acute anxieties about going it alone; remainers fear that the UK is not viable without the EU. And feeling alone and very vulnerable in this aloneness, perhaps to the extent of being in the grip of survival anxiety, makes Remainers fight tooth and nail to stay attached.

This issue with national identity has also been evident in other parts of the Union. Scotland’s push for independence shows this clearly. The core complex and the drive for autonomy has been at work in both countries, though, perhaps, the perceived solution to this problem of fragile identity has been different?

This difference is expressed in how a sense of separation and autonomy is being developed by Scotland and England. In developmental terms, adolescence is usually the time when we forge a separate identity and adolescents generally do this in a state of opposition. We define ourselves by being different from our parents and establish our separateness by resisting their values, beliefs and injunctions. For Scotland therefore, perhaps identity is forged in opposition to England? The wish to stay in the EU could be understood as separating from the “family” union with England and defining Scottish identity as separate from England’s via its imagined relationship to the EU. For Scotland, the feared claustrophobic control doesn’t come from Brussels but from Westminster; indeed, Scotland seems to experience the EU as the protector not the controlling, dominating parent.

In contrast, England’s uncertain identity, though also leading to a preoccupation with autonomy, is forged in opposition to the EU. For England, it is Brussels that raises the spectre of domination and control.

So, in relation to our current divisions, can we think about this as a couple problem? At the risk of being heteronormative and reinforcing gender norms, remind ourselves that Nigel Leaveson desperately wants autonomy; he fears being colonised and prizes his independence and hates to feel needy and out of control. Ana Romaine, on the other hand wants to stay close and fears he will abandon her and the children.  She is convinced unless she nails him down with financial and child contact agreements, her survival is at stake. This kind of split, and the fight and acrimony it can generate between couples is what I feel I am witnessing in the divisions we see between leave and remain supporters. Between couples, this kind of difficulty can feel like a fight to the death and it seems that the current strength of feeling in the country is similarly polarised and desperate. Further, as we get closer to leaving without any plan or guarantees of security, unsurprisingly, difficulties with rational and calm thinking seem to be getting worse.

The way I try to help couples become less angry and polarised is twofold. Firstly, I try and develop a sense of safety and containment in the therapy that generates trust both with me and between the couple and secondly, when feelings are more regulated and calmer, I am trying to help them build a sense of self that feels strong and resilient. When this is established, the polarisation decreases and collaboration becomes more possible. One can only hope that our leaders begin to understand this need for containment and security, so we can begin the process of understanding each other and concern and empathy, can re-emerge in our country.



Barnett, A. (2017) The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump. Unbound Books.

Glasser, M (1979) Some aspects of the role of aggression in the perversions. In I. Rosen (Ed) Sexual Deviation (2nd edition). Oxford: OUP

Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27, 99-110.

Morgan, M. (2018) A Couple State of Mind: Psychoanalysis of Couples and the Tavistock Relationships Model. The Library of Couple and Family Psychoanalysis, Routledge.

O’Toole, F. (2018) Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. Apollo Books

Tuckett, David & Taffler, Richard. (2008). Phantastic objects and the financial market’s sense of reality: A psychoanalytic contribution to the understanding of stock market instability1. The International journal of psycho-analysis. 89. 389-412.

Volkan, V. (2014) Psychoanalysis, International Relations and Diplomacy. A sourcebook on Large-Group Psychology. London: Karnac Books.


A version of this article was published online by Open Democracy in February 2019 following a policy seminar on Brexit at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust where Susanna Abse and Anthony Barnett gave presentations.  Grateful thanks go to Professor Andrew Cooper who organised and chaired the seminar.



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