Primary love is the term proposed by Michael Balint to designate the very first phase of mental development, characterized by a "harmonious relation to an undifferentiated environment" (Balint, 1952), a "mixture that is made harmonious through interpenetration" of the individual and his or her environment. This "inevitable" primitive phase, which is not associated with an erogenous zone, would become the matrix of all other object relations and leave "vestiges and residues . . . in all the later phases."
This concept is outside the framework of object relations theory, which made its appearance during the thirties and considers the subject no longer isolated but an integral part of his environment. Michael Balint attempted to resolve the theoretical polemic between Vienna and London on the first stages of psychic life (primary narcissism or sadism), by continuing to carry out research in both directions indicated by Freud in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d) and Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), and by treating "the development of the individual sexual function and the development of human relations" as inseparable.
Balint emphasized biology—the bond between the mother and the infant is described as a form "biological interdependence"—and object relations, "reactions to the real influence of the world of objects, primarily to the educational methods" that follow. In 1935 Balint made use of the work of Sándor Ferenczi (Ferenczi, 1924/1963) and the predominant role he gave to object relations, as shown in his Clinical Diary of 1932: "Life begins with a passive and exclusive love object. Infants do not love. They must be loved" (Ferenczi, 1988/1932). He identified transferences of this type in certain cures and inferred this primitive stage from them.
In 1937 Balint developed a more radical critique of "primary narcissism." Postulating (with Sándor Ferenczi and Alice Balint) the idea that object relations exist from birth, he suggested replacing the Freudian perspective with the notion of "primary love." This concept better accounts for subsequent clinical approaches to transference during the treatment of psychotic patients, as well as during treatment of the pre-oedipal material of neuroses: the demand for "primitive," "naïve," "innocent" gratification (Balint, 1952), and calm or passionate responses to gratification or frustration by the analyst. During the stage of "primary love" all the infant's needs are satisfied, but those of the mother are as well; the two protagonists are equally satisfied and gratified. If this satisfaction is lacking (in the infant or the mother), "relational tensions . . . can result in the appearance of all kinds of ego distortions in the infant or neurotic phenomena in the mother." Balint articulates this stage and its pathologies in a new theory of the "basic fault." Although the term is not in widespread use and has even been neglected, and in spite of its restriction to dyadic relations, the changes in technique that it brings about in order to avoid "malignant regressions" has influenced analysts of borderline or psychotic patients.