The biggest difference between Freud and the British Independents lies in the latter’s focus on variations in the environment as a source of both normal development and psychopathology. To simplify somewhat, Freud is concerned with the infant’s intrapsychic conflict and treats the parents as though they are almost static figures, playing a biologically determined role. Winnicott and Fairbairn are more interested in the minutia of how the parents fulfill their role, and detail the impact that this has on the developing child. It’s all about relationships for these guys. In stark contrast to Freud, Fairbairn sees the trauma of not being understood, recognized, and loved as the basic root of psychopathology. Winnicott spent his career examining the mother-infant relationship in minute detail. For him, psychopathology is caused by flaws in this relationship—especially in the mother’s responses to her infant’s dependence and then emerging independence. (He overdid it on this point, even to the extent of denying a role for constitutional (genetic) factors—another area where he differs from Freud). His ideas on the centrality of the self are precursors to Kohut and self-psychology, even to the extent of viewing the role of psychoanalysis as a kind of re-parenting experience.
The writings of the British Independents are both an elaboration of Freud’s theories of development and a challenge to them. While Winnicott and Fairbairn were in fact building on Freud’s concepts, using them as a point of departure, they put their emphasis on very different concerns. A day in the consulting room with Dr. Freud would look a whole lot different from one with Dr. Winnicott.