Abstinence (Rule of)
= D.: Abstinenz (Grundsatz der).–Es.: abstinencia (regla de).–Fr.: abstinence (règle d’).–
I.: astinenza (regola di).–P.: abstinência (regra de).
Rule according to which the analytic treatment should be so organised as to ensure
that the patient finds as few substitutive satisfactions for his symptoms as possible. The
implication for the analyst is that he should refuse on principle to satisfy the patient’s
demands and to fulfil the roles which the patient tends to impose upon him. In certain
cases, and at certain moments during the treatment, the rule of abstinence may be given
explicit expression in the form of advice about the patient’s repetitive behaviour which is hindering the work of recollection and the working out*.


The justification for the rule of abstinence is of an essentially economic* order. The
analyst must make sure that the quantities of libido released by the treatment are not
immediately redirected towards a fresh cathexis of external objects; they must so far as
possible be transferred into the analytic situation. The libidinal energy is thus monopolised
by the transference* and deprived of any occasion for discharge other than through verbal


From the dynamic* point of view, the treatment relies basically on the existence of
suffering brought about by frustration – a suffering which tends to decrease as the symptoms
are replaced by more satisfying substitutive behaviour. The important thing, therefore, is to
maintain or to re-establish the frustration so as to assure the progress of the treatment.
Implicitly, the notion of abstinence is linked to the whole principle of the analytic
method, in that interpretation* is its fundamental aim–not the gratification of the patient’s
libidinal demands. It should come as no surprise that when Freud tackles the question of
abstinence directly, in 1915, it is apropos of a particularly pressing demand–the one
inevitably associated with transference-love: ‘I shall state it as a fundamental principle that
the patient’s need and longing should be allowed to persist in her, in order that they may
serve as forces impelling her to do work and to make changes, and that we must beware of
appeasing these forces by means of surrogates’ (1).


It was with Ferenczi that the technical problems posed by the observance of the rule of
abstinence were to come to the forefront of psycho-analytic debate. In certain cases, Freud
maintained, measures should be taken which tend to drive away the surrogate satisfactions
which the patient finds both within the treatment and outside it. In his concluding address to
the Budapest Congress of 1918, Freud approved such measures on principle and offered a
theoretical justification for them: ‘Cruel though it may sound, we must see to it that the
patient’s suffering, to a degree that is in some way or other effective, does not come to an end
prematurely. If, owing to the symptoms having been taken apart, and having lost their value,
his suffering becomes mitigated, we must re-instate it elsewhere in the form of some
appreciable privation’ (2).


The notion of abstinence is still the subject of debate. In our opinion, it is worth while
drawing a clear distinction here between abstinence as a rule to be followed by the analyst–a
simple consequence of his neutrality*–and those active measures* which he takes in order to
get the patient to abstain from certain things of his own accord. Such measures range from
interpretations whose persistent repetition makes them tantamount to injunctions, to
categorical prohibitions. The latter, when they are not designed to forbid the patient all sexual
relations, are usually directed against specific forms of sexual activity (perversions) or
specific manoeuvres of a repetitive character which seem to be paralysing the work of
analysis. The majority of analysts have serious reservations about recourse to active measures
of this type–notably on the grounds that in this way the analyst may with justice be accused
of expressing repressive authority.


(1) Freud, S., G.W., X, 313; S.E., XII, 165.
(2) 2 Freud, S. ‘Lines of Advance in Psycho-Analytic Therapy’ (1919a [1918]), G.W., XII,
188; S.E., XVII, 163.

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