The notion of aggression against one’s ego takes a central place in Freud’s theories, agreeing also with another analyst of his time, Abraham (1911, 1965). However, later theorists have disputed its role; Birbing (1953) argues that depression appears free from any vicissitudes of aggression or oral drives. What he sees as rather fundamental in depression was ‘the ego’s shocking awareness of its helplessness in regards to its aspirations.’ According to Bibring (1953), depression happens when the person feels powerless to meet narcissistically important needs but, at the same time, unable to abandon such needs.  Regardless of their unconscious implications, Bibring (1953) puts forward three main groups of rigidly narcissistic aspirations: 1) wishes to be worthy and loved against experiences of unworthiness, 2) wishes to be strong, superior and secure, opposed to experiences of weakness and insecurity and 3) wishes to be good and loving, against experiences of aggression, hate and destructiveness. 

Freud also suggests that internal conflict due to ambivalence should be included among three preconditions of melancholia, together with the real or imaginary loss of a loved object, and the libidinal regression of the ego. From an interpersonal perspective, Coyne (1985) quoting Cohen et al. (1954), describes depression as a process of  ‘seeing others as objects to be manipulated for the purpose of receiving sympathy and reassurance, but also as seeing them as being critical, rejecting and ungenuine in their support’ (pp. 314-5). Here, ambivalent feelings of love and hate are directed to others, while resorting to depressive techniques of complaining and whining when the needs of the depressed one are not satisfied. We can also think here of a melancholic relationship or situation, as one developing in a consulting room, rather than just the depressed or depressive individual.

From an interpersonal angle, Coyne (1985) investigates means by which one’s interrelational environment comes into congruence with one’s experience of depression, identifying three interactive stalemates. In the first one, ‘a self-maintaining pattern of mutual manipulation is established’ (p. 321) which provides a maintenance of a declining situation. The ‘healthy’ ones alleviate their guilt relating to the melancholic and reduce aversive expressions by being manipulative with calculated support and overall denial of such processes. On the other hand, the depressed one relates by manipulating the others in order to get the reassurance that s/he needs, but senses at the same time that responses are not genuine. Gradually and with time, ‘requesting information as to how people really view him [the depressed one] is indistinguishable from symptomatic efforts’ (p. 322) and any efforts maintain the relational status quo which only increase ‘the level of depression and strengthens the pathogenic pattern of depressed behaviour and response to others’ (p. 312).

During the second impasse, Coyne (1985) describes melancholic experiences of increasing helplessness and hostility towards self and others, while holding the environment responsible for not bringing about improvement. Hiding behind pathology seems useful with mutual ongoing manipulations. As intimate relations seem to deteriorate, the melancholic addresses his/her plea to a more extended crowd, but in more confusing and misunderstood terms, feeling more exposed and isolated. In the final impasse, the depressed one attempts to break through by increasing the symptomatology with themes of worthlessness, evil and destructiveness. Relationships and communications become even more obscure and perplexing with strong senses of resignation and self-rejection. With such an impoverished and overwhelmed ego or sense of identity, burdened by ‘the absence of any relatedness to others, the depressive may drift into … psychotic behaviour’ (p. 325).

Ironically, the melancholic among all these tries to accomplish two basic things: 1) a self consistent identity and 2) to entertain and elaborate meanings (Becker, 1985). Becker, in line with existential ideas, points out the ego’s ongoing attempts to create an integrated and meaningful experience, but in the face of and dread over emptiness, any meaning, even depressive, feels essential. He also suggests that ‘[d]epressive self-accusation is an attempted unplugging of action in the face of the Frightful, of the possibility that one’s whole world will slip away’ (p. 372).