A Double Helix Model for

Human Psychological Development


(Engl. orig. article; May 2004; July 2004; EJCP Vol. 7)




M. Fleming



Key Words: Attachment, Separation,  Individuation, Child Development, Adolescence, Ageing, Identity Formation, Parent-Child Psychology, Autonomy, Dyads, Parenthood,  Adulthood, Loss, Representation,  Home Leaving, Gender, Socialization, Family Relationships, Newborn, Maternal Care.





New theoretical models are useful to a better understanding of psychological developmental that, in an integrated and complete manner, are able of encompassing all of the human lifespan. Inspired in the double helix model of DNA, I propose here a two-path model made up of two developmental strands: attachment (A) and separation-individuation (SI). Like the DNA molecule, the two strands are organized in a spiral whose ascending course represents the human lifespan. In contrast to DNA, the distance from the A and SI strands to the central axis varies along the length of the psychological spiral; these variations represent the changes in intensity of A and SI during the different ages of human beings. Interaction between the A and SI helixes is proposed based on information coming from research in psychology, namely from clinical and empirical studies, and from theoretical models of development. Different phases of human development are recalled and illustrated in detail in drawings that depict the proposed psychological double helix and show the distinct interactions between A and SI helixes along the entire human lifespan.




The year of 2003 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of the most seminal paper in molecular biology of the 20th century: the Watson and Crick (1953) double-helix model of DNA. In addition to its symbolic and heuristic value, the double-helix model has permeated popular culture, and is part of the scientific patrimony of all educated human beings.

As a clinical psychoanalyst (Pinheiro et al., 2001 & 2003), who is also a university professor collaborating in a large research group on human genetic diseases (Sequeiros et al., 1998), I have elaborated a double-helix model on the natural history of two psychological lines of development that attend the whole extension of the human lifespan. The herein double-helix model is illustrated in several drawings that are aimed at fostering a dialog, of similarities and differences, with the DNA molecule. This proposal describes human psychological development as the result of the dynamic interaction between two elective psychological processes, i. e., attachment and separation-individuation, rather than trying to integrate the numerous, and often contradictory, theories of development of our day that deal with cognitive, moral or social components of human development.

A new avenue of research is suggested: to investigate together the development of individuated personality and that of attached, interpersonally connected personality that have been usually studied in separate.


Revisiting the DNA Double Helix


Using a metaphor, the DNA molecule can be described as a spiral ladder made up of two long handrails that are held together by numerous steps. The handrails are two long twisting chains consisting in repetitive sugar-phosphate elements; the steps are the �noble� components of the molecule, i. e., the complementary base pairs where genetic information is stored. Because all steps of the ladder have the same length, the handrails are held together at a constant distance along the whole length of the DNA molecule. This constancy in the distance between the two helixes is a difference between the DNA double-helix, and the herein proposed double-helix model for human psychological development.


Helix of Attachment and Helix of Separation-Individuation Make up the Psychological Double Helix


The psychological double helix, like the DNA molecule, consists in a spiral twisting of two long chains and it is illustrated in Figure 1. The length of this double helix is the length of the entire lifespan of a human being. One helix represents the degree of attachment to other human beings; the other one depicts the degree of separation-individuation. These two psychological parameters show marked variations along the different ages of a human being, and these changes characterize the developmental stages during the entire human life. To depict these alterations, each of the two helixes is drawn at a variable distance from the central axis of the double helix. Attachment and separation-individuation are thus considered here to be the fundamental functions for the organization and advancement of the human psyche, and also the key functions for emotional and cognitive development of the human being.


General Features of the Psychological Double Helix


The rationale of the herein model is the following:

(i)        Psychological development advances in a spiral pattern made up of two helixes depicting an asymmetric organization around a central axis; the model is based on the predominance of one helix over the other, rather than on a bi-directional model (e. g., as in trust vs. mistrust proposed by Erikson, 1959).

(ii)       The helixes are active all along the human lifespan and change in positioning in response to outer and inner stimuli that reach the psyche; a transactional process occurs between organism and interpersonal environment.

(iii)      The two helixes interact with each other, namely by feedback mechanisms, and this modulates their in-between distance and the distance separating each of the helixes from the central axis of the double-helix assembly.

The main goal of the model is to illustrate the dialectic interaction between attachment and separation-individuation that occurs along the human life. Contrary to some views, these two processes are not considered here as antagonists, i. e., the presence of one excluding the other, but rather as related entities that evolve together.

The foundations of this model come from the theoretical corpus of developmental psychology in general (namely, socio-cognitive and ego-developmental theorists), with a particular contribution of psychoanalysis (namely object-relation theorists). They are also derived from published data coming from clinical and empirical investigations, and from clinical research of the author, as university psychologist and clinical psychoanalyst (Fleming, 2000, 2003a and 2004).


Premises of the Psychological Double Helix


Since its very beginning, psychoanalysis was devoted to the investigation of the early psychological development of the human being. The psychoanalytical characterization of newborns and infants was a major contribution of Melanie Klein (1975 a and b) who defined the primordial relationships established by newborns with their primary objects. A number of researchers in neonatal medicine (e. g., Als, Brazelton, Porte, Klaus, Kennell, Lamb) also offered new and important information on developmental psychology. In my opinion, these new data must be integrated in more complex and dynamic models that address the whole extension of human life. Advancements in the understanding of interpersonal relationships, namely of children and adolescents, has been achieved both by psychoanalysis and other psychology approaches, and this allowed the current detailed definition of the affective and cognitive modifications that attend growing up and the transition to adulthood.

Several premises can be stated regarding the psychological double-helix model (illustrated in Fig. 1):

(i)      Psychological development depends on the dialectic tension between the processes of attachment (A) and separation-individuation (SI) that make up two helixes evolving around a central axis, getting closer or further away from the axis as either attachment or separation-individuation are the predominant processes in the interpersonal relationships that are established in each phase of human life.

(ii)    Both attachment and separation-individuation processes occur simultaneously; they start at the prenatal period, and they drive psychological development along the whole extension of the human life.

(iii)   Attachment corresponds to the primary need to establish affective bondage, of getting emotionally close to other human beings, in order to capture security and protection.

(iv)   Separation-Individuation corresponds to the primary need to create the own self and identity, and also to the necessity of avoiding excessive fusion with others with whom affective bonds are established.

(v)    Attachment and separation-individuation show different interactions along the double-helix spiral according to the specific developmental tasks that characterize each of the psychological stages of human life (e.g., attachment predominates in the newborn stage, and separation-individuation predominates in the transition of the adolescent to adulthood).



The Psychological Double Helix Starts: From Infancy to Childhood


In all primates, psychological attachment of newborns and children to parents and/or caretakers plays a primordial role in survival, namely by protecting infants from the attack of predators. In the human child, attachment creates emotions of protection and security and, most importantly, assures emotional bondage within different generations of the same family.

In the human family, the parents and/or caretakers are the key modulators of the initial attachment and separation-individuation functions of the baby. This is done as part of the emotional interactions with the baby, through the so-called intuitive parenthood, and by educative intentionality (Papousek and Papousek, 1995). The parents and/or caretakers stimulate the beginning of symbolic processes (such as, dialog and language) that allow the child to start exploratory behaviors and also the beginning of social integration.


Attachment Prevails in the Newborn


Emotional attachment of the mother to the baby begins in uterus when she creates her first bond with the imaginary baby, i. e., before bonding with the actual baby after birth (Fonagy et al., 1991a). Bowlby (1951) proposed that there are innate behavioral systems ready to be activated immediately after birth. These are aimed at establishing links (e. g., breast feeding, touch, following, crying, smiling) to specific parental objects, usually the biological mother, who are close to the baby and assure his survival. The innate behaviors would allow both attachment to protective figures and expression of early perceptive capacities to recognize and differentiated the other from the self, thus participating in the process of individuation (Feldman & Klein, 2003).

The contributions of Brazelton and co-workers (Als et al., 1979; Brazelton and Als, 1979; Dixon et al., 1981; Brazelton, 1991 and 1994) revealed the role that, since birth, the baby plays in establishing links with the maternal object, depicting an early ability of differentiation. Shortly after being born, the baby concentrates his attention on moving objects and discriminates between images, voices and sounds (Hsu & Fogel, 2004). The newborn depicts the capacity of triggering behavioral responses from the mother, and if the mother does not respond to the baby, his efforts are pursued until her attention is captured.The baby gives up only after a number of very active and repetitive attempts to induce a response from the mother. As it was stated by Brazelton (1981), the baby is born with excellent tools to communicate his needs and also to thank those around him; in fact, the baby is able to choose what to expect from his parents and/or caretakers.

Clearly, both the capacities of attachment and separation-individuation are present since birth, though attachment predominates initially (see Fig. 2). The two capacities are in the baby already the basic elements of communicative projective identification (Klein, 1946).

It is the quality of the caring experiences that has the greatest role in shaping the development of the child, leading to a balanced or unbalanced outcome of the process of psychological development of the child. If the attachment system is able to answer, in a feedback mode, to the needs of the newborn, and if the mother-baby attachment is satisfactory for both elements of the dyad, the baby acquires primordial trust in the caring figure. This creates inner objects that the newborn trusts in. The phenomenon will be translated into long-term inner feelings of security and of self-esteem. This has been stated in short by Mahler and co-workers (1975), when they considered that if the parent responded with sensitivity to the child�s needs and provided a secure base, the child will allow himself or herself to adventure into longer explorations outside his small world, knowing that he can come back to the parents. It is this inner continuous feeling of protection that is offered by these organized patterns of attachment (Fraley & Spieker, 2003). It can be acquired as the baby reaches his first year of age, thus allowing the child to tolerate temporary absences of the mother, because he is able to believe that she will come back to him again (Ainsworth et al., 1978). If, on contrary, the quality of the early interaction is deficient, in the sense of Bowlby (1988), anxiety will be triggered at such a level that is not tolerated by the baby. Instead of differentiation of the self, dissociation and projection will occur and this will impair child development.

The maternal functions of container and of �r�verie�, as these concepts were introduced by Bion (1962), are also important modulators of the quality of early interaction between mother and baby. Several clinical studies have confirmed Bion�s proposal (Sroufe, 1990; Fonagy and Target, 1996). They have concluded that the maternal capacity of container of the mental states of the baby will enhance his or her trust in the emotional support that he or she will get from his mother, namely during episodes of suffering or excitement. The assurance of being emotionally protected by the mother strengthens the emotional link of the baby with his caretaker.


Dynamic Interaction between Attachment and Separation-Individuation Starts in Infancy


It is the feeling of trust and confidence in the other, the foundation of object-constancy that will stimulate the child in the direction of exploratory behaviors allowing him to distance himself from attachment figures and also to initiate individuation. Thus, a sense of self-esteem will allow the baby to distance himself from attachment figures and initiate separation-individuation. Attachment and individuation will feed each other, and the spiral of psychological development will advance. To establish appropriate attachment links is also to permit the emergence of individuation, and the latter will stimulate back the attachment function, and the child becomes able to separate himself from the caretakers since he feels to have established secure links with them.

A number of investigations have documented the association between the quality of established attachment and the development of cognitive capacities. If attachment is solid, the child will better use his mental apparatus (Ainsworth et al., 1978: Bowlby, 1980, 1988). Target and Fonagy (1996) have commented that these children �accept the two realities, the inner and the outer ones, without the need to split the functioning ego in two forms of thought�, and also that �children with fulfilled attachment need to feel free to explore the mind of those that take care of them in a situation that has a double advantage for their development�.

This double advantage offers clinical support for the interaction between the two helixes that is at the core of the herein proposed model of psychological development.

To the maternal sensivity as a key mediator, Fonagy and co-workers (1991b, 1994) added another mediator, the reflective function (the capacity of parents to reflect on their own minds and on those of their children). A high reflective function was found to protect their infants against insecure attachments (Fonagy et al., 1994). Thus, the capacity of exploration is closely linked to secure attachment. The double-helix model considers that this link between attachment and separation/individuation, that is first observed during infancy, and continues during adolescence and early adulthood, will go on all along the different ages of the whole human lifespan.


Separation-Individuation Jumps by the First Year of Age


The acquisition of the conscience of separation between the self and the other carries great benefits for the autonomy of the child, and expands his links to environments other than the limited one provided by the family. The child initiates individuation by exploring the mind of the mother, his own self, and the world around him (Bojczyk & Corbetta, 2004; Lillard & Witherington, 2004). During the phase of practising (from 9 to 16 months or so) described by Mahler and co-workers (1975), the child, due to his enhanced mobility, aims at the conquest of the physical space that surrounds him. As the investigations of Freud and Winnicott have revealed, the child turns to psychological objects to master his separation anxiety and to overcome the trauma of being apart from his parents.

The conscience of being a separate being is both painful to be achieved and necessary for the child to leave the fusion shell of his family. The construction of the Self is associated with that of the building of the concept of the other. Recognition of self image during the mirror phase (Lacan), and the capacity of �no� (Spitz) are psychological markers of infancy and they are also organizers of the differentiation of the self. They support the progression of the child in the direction of more complex levels of individuation, and of a wider spectrum of emotional links within and outside the family space. The drive for individuation is now at full speed, firstly in an ambivalent attitude, i. e., starting at 16-24 months of age, the child alternates between detachment and closeness to bonding figures, the so-called rapprochement phase of the individuation process. Later on, the ambivalence settles down and the desire of individuation stimulates the child to become more and more autonomous, due to greater object constancy, and due to feeling ego pleasure in freedom and in narcissistic gains (Smith et al., 2004).

According to McDevitt and Mahler (1980), by the third year of life child developmental progresses to new stages that are due to a secure attachment to love objects, the primary caregivers, combined with �autonomy, individuation, self-constancy and cohesiveness of the self�.

Structural psychological changes prepare the child to solve Oedipal issues and for cognitive development, namely for interpersonal competence (Selman, 1981): the capacity of understanding that the other has feelings and thoughts that are separate from his own. The capacity of the child to recognize the other as someone that is psychologically different from his/her self, permits an individuation jump and, thus, the separation-individuation helix becomes predominant (see Fig. 3).

Simultaneously, these new competences increase and stimulate the attachment helix: the child relates more and more to others and acquires new capacities for cooperative play, role playing of adult roles, and a new kind of emotional relationships (Spinrad et al., 2004).


Between Childhood and Adolescence: the Latency Period


In spite of extending his emotional links and social intercourses (e. g., to friends and peers in kindergarten and elementary school) and of the desire of transient separation from the family space, the need for protection and the acceptance of the values and of the life style of the family are not challenged. The family is felt as the most important life factor and dependence from the family is positively valued. The spiral of development advances into new tasks as the tension generated by the two helixes facilitates the progress in social and relational capacities of the child. The great changes of the first and second infancies are followed by a period of latency and calmness in emotional aspects and also in the relationships of the family. The superego formation during the Oedipal period helps the latency-child to master the outer and inner reality, e. g., separation-individuation questions, Oedipal drives, and castration anxiety, in a deeper ego-dominated fashion.

A biological event, puberty, will shake this calm phase of psychological development. During puberty, the genetic calendar determines genital maturity and this introduces new challenges in the psychological balance of the child and in the homeostasis of the family.

The emerging capacities for empathy, mutuality and concern prepare the child for more complex issues in separation-individuation helix and this will foster new forms of experiences of attachment, in a balanced way (see Fig. 4).


Adolescence: Separation-Individuation Takes Over


At the start of puberty, it is the separation-individuation helix that will become more and more the predominant one (see Fig. 5), and this change will push the spiral of psychological development into more complex and radical levels of personal autonomy. Links to parents will be decreased and parental advice, which was accepted and internalized earlier, will be questioned, particularly, during the so-called second individuation process of adolescence, as described by Blos (1967).

The attachment to parents is undervalued with regards to personal autonomy. The adolescent expresses new desires and initiates new behaviors. The beginning and the end of adolescence are transition periods that challenge the family into changing itself.

The cognitive mutation, i. e., the emergence of formal thought introduces the capacity of complex abstract reasoning that is used in social interactions. The adolescent is now able to �think in perspective� and also to recognize the mutual character of his relationship with parents. The adolescent is pushed by forces that are going in different directions: on one hand, he desires to stay in the protective space of the family and to keep his attachment to parents, and, on the other hand, he feels the desire to leave, and enhance exploratory behaviors beyond parental control (Fleming,1992b, 2003b, 2004). The resolution of the Oedipal aspects, the mourning of parental images (the first organizer, according to Cordeiro, 1975) and the investment on affective objects outside the family (second psychological organizer) able the adolescent to establish new object relations and triggers the search for new attachment figures.

In my research work, I have repeatedly found that the desire of autonomy shows up as puberty begins, and stays all along the human lifespan. During puberty, the achievement of autonomy is associated with conflict with parents. The capacity of disobeying and of behaving in accordance with personal choices and values, in a process that implies loss of idealization of parental figures, will get stronger as adolescence advances (Figueiredo et al. 1983; Fleming, 1983, 1992 a & b, 2004).

In spite of the marked cultural variability of adolescent behaviors, as the pioneering work of Margaret Mead has revealed, most researchers agree that the main developmental task of adolescence is autonomy. Psychological separation from parents organizes all of the other developmental changes: the reworking of internal ties with parents, the consolidation of autonomy, and the identity of the self.

The re-emerging sexual drives, the reactivation of the Oedipal aspects (Freud, 1909, 1917), the changes between previous and current experiences with social partners (Erikson, 1959), the innate tendency from separation from parents (similarly to what occurs in other animal species; Bloom, 1980, Bekoff, 1977), are some of the motivations for separation. The adolescent and the parents have to undergo mutual adjustments to find new roles and hierarchies in the regulation of power. Relationships inside the family evolve in the direction of greater mutuality and reciprocity.

On analysing the data obtained with a sample of 994 adolescents aged between 12-19 years old, I confirmed that there is a clear association between the capacity of autonomy and the capacity to keep secure links with the parents (Fleming, 2004). This investigation offered me first-hand evidence that the adolescent needs secure emotional attachment to parents to be able to separate and individuate.

These data, in agreement with those by others (Murphey et al, 1963; Moore & Hotch, 1983; Keny, 1986; Anderson & Fleming, 1986; Campbell et al, 1986, Moore,1987; Lopez and Gover, 1993; Aquilino, 1997; Shulman et al, 2000), again support the interaction present in the double-helix model that is herein proposed.

If the family system does not adapt itself to changes and instead closes on itself, it will resist the required modifications, and may even choose to return to the homeostasis that had been achieved during infancy. A blockage of the developmental processes will occur and the progress of the spirals of life may be stopped leading to psychological harm of the adolescent. The attachment and separation-individuation processes will become disconnected from each other and what would be a natural process of replication, using DNA as metaphor, is turned into a process of pseudo-individuation. The emotional conditions for psychopathology of developmental processes of adolescence are created: drug addition, anorexia, bulimia, and also the emergence of disorders of inner conflict: depression, borderline disorders, schizophrenia (Fleming, 1983, 1992a and 2003; Pinheiro et al., 2001 and 2003).


Transition to Adulthood: Replication of the Double Helix


At the beginning of adulthood new areas of psychological development will start. Now is the capacity for intimacy (Erikson, 1968) the main developmental task. According to Erikson (1963), the young adult �is ready for intimacy, that is, for commitment in specific affiliations and partnerships�.

The attachment helix will replicate itself, i. e., while keeping the primary attachment, new ones are established (see Fig. 6). The capacity for intimacy leads to the capacity for marriage. Human beings begin to generate (the main developmental task of adulthood, according Erikson, 1963): not only the offspring, but also ideas and a variety of achievements (Bauer & McAdams, 2004). In adolescence, the attachment to new objects of love is modulated by the cast of love objects that were first internalized (Oedipal choice of the object). In adulthood, instead, there is a transient separation of the two helixes of the spiral from each other in order to have the additional space needed to bind a new helix, the helix of marriage that is a new attachment helix and carries with it the complex network of emotional links of adulthood.

Research has repeatedly shown that, on leaving the home of the parents, young adults will build stronger attachments to the parents and a great level of separation-individuation (Murphy et al., 1963; Moore and Hotch, 1981 and 1983; Hoffman, 1984; Kenny, 1986; Anderson and Fleming, 1986; Campbell et al., 1986; Shulman et al., 2000). When they themselves become parents, a greater emotional attachment develops between parents and their adult children (Aquilino, 1997; Rossi and Rossi, 1990). Attachment now assures the links between different generations of the family. The interaction between attachment and separation-individuation continues: again, secure attachment favors individuation.

In my research work, I have found that the young adults that show adequate progress in psychological development (measured by well being, adaptation to new situations, integrated levels of identity, higher capacity to establish intimacy in their relations, and having success after leaving the family home) are the same that achieve a good level of individuation (measured by the capacity of personal control, autonomy and sense of responsibility) that is simultaneous with a high degree of attachment to parents, measured by the capacity of emotional bondage and closeness to parents (Murphy et al, 1963; Moore & Hotch, 1983; Kenny, 1986; Anderson & Fleming, 1986; Campbell et al, 1986, Moore, 1987; Aquilino, 1997; Shulman et al, 2000). The interaction between attachment and separation-individuation, observed, as referred before, all along infancy, continues in adulthood: again, secure attachment favours separation-individuation (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002). The strands of attachment and separation-individuation, separated but interconnected, ascend in the spiral double-helix model of human development.


From Maturity to Old Age: Attachment Prevails Again


On entering the last phase of life, the attachment helix captures the predominant role and directs this last period of human psychological development (see Fig. 7). The loss of some of the mental and somatic capacities that is associated with growing old, change the elderly into dependent persons, and this reactivates attachment behaviors and these may now be lived with anxiety by the elderly. Psychological similarities between childhood and old age have been pointed out (McCormack et al., 1999; Cepeda et al., 2001). As it is referred by Madow (1997): �the elderly become more and more infantile, both biologically and psychologically�We become more incapacitated, we lose our ability to walk and talk, incontinence returns and we require diapers� and further on: �The elderly become more and more dependent, increasingly helpless, and, to conclude metaphorically, end up with an I.V. drip as an umbilical cord and ultimately are reunited with Mother Earth�, underlining the return to primordial stages of development: �the aim of all life is the return to symbiosis�.

The tension between the two helixes that has resulted in the different advances of psychological development along the whole life is decreasing at old age: the two helixes are getting closer with the attachment one being the predominant one, as it had occurred at birth.

Death will be a breakdown, like the breakdown of DNA in apoptosis (Goldstein, 1997; Danial & Korsmeyer, 2004), but affective bonding will persist as imprint and remembrance in the offspring for a long, long time�thus, revealing that the power of human attachment continues well beyond the death of any individual human being.



The author thanks to Professor Maria de Sousa for comments and suggestions, to Dr. Maria Rodrigues for help with the figures, and to Artur �guas for reading the manuscript.



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Legends of the Figures


Figure1. Complete double helix: the entire lifespan of the human being is illustrated; it integrates in a single drawing the changes in intensity of attachment and of separation-individuation that occur during the different phases of human psychological development.


Figures 2-7. Separate presentation of the different phases of human psychological development according to the proposed double-helix model: the intensity of each helix is reflected in the distance from the axis of the spiral, e. g., in infancy (Fig. 2) the attachment helix (A) is stronger than the separation-individuation helix (SI).

��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� ���������������� Fig. 1

����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� Fig. 2

����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� Fig. 3

����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� Fig. 4

����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� Fig. 5

����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� Fig. 6

����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� Fig. 7


* * * * * *



Author of this article can be reached at:

E-mail: mfleming@icbas.up.pt or manuelafleming@iol.pt


M. Fleming, PhD

Titular Psychoanalyst and

Associate Professor

Department of Behavioural Sciences

Abel Salazar Institute for the Biomedical Sciences,

University of Porto, L. Abel Salazar 2,

4099-033 Porto, Portugal,

European Union.