Object Relations Theory

How do our early experiences shape our perception, behaviour, and emotions? What is the link between our early relationships and relationships later in life? How does the way our parents treated us impact how we treat ourselves and others later on?

These were the questions object relations theorists tried to answer.

Why “Object Relations” Theory?

Freud’s original drive theory wasn’t enough to understand and treat all psychopathologies. Which is where object relations theory came in. It flourished in the 1940s, 1950s and still is one of the most impactful psychodynamic schools to date.

You might be confused or bothered by the word “object”. Freud was the first to use the word object in his original drive theory. Partly, because he used a lot of biological or military vocabulary. And partly because he was focused on the drive and the object was the person or thing that would satisfy the drive.

Object relations theorists didn’t assume that the object is merely there to satisfy a drive but that there is a relation that involves emotions, action and reaction, a longing for safety, connection, love, aggression, autonomy, separation. In this way, the object relations theory turned Freud’s one-person psychology into a two-person psychology. And it’s this early relationship that has lasting effects for the development of one’s personality. When object relations theorist talk about the object, they usually refer to the mother or early care-giver.

The way that those early objects still have an impact on us later in life is because we internalize them. You could say they live on inside of us. We use those internal objects as blueprints. They hold the ideas we have about who we are and how to treat ourselves (the so-called self-representations). And ideas we have about others and what to expect from them (the so-called object-representations). The fascinating thing is that you don’t really internalize your mother or father or any other object as they were. What you internalize is your own subjective experience of it that is a mixture of reality and fantasy. That is one of the reasons that if you listen to siblings, it can seem like they had different parents.

Object Relations Theory's place within psychodynamic theory
Created by Alina Müller

There are so many different object relations theories that it can be considered another umbrella term. Object Relations Theory can broadly be put into two camps. One is an elaboration on Freud’s drive theory and referred to as the fatherly or hard object relations theory. The other is rather a deviation from Freud’s drive theory and referred to as the motherly or soft object relations theory.

They differ (1) in the way that they adhere to Freud’s drive theory. Especially regarding whether the motivation to be in relationship can be reduced to drives or is its own system. (2) In the way they think about aggression (as either an inbaked thing in the child’s system or as a reaction to a lack in the relationship). And (3) they have different ideas about the role and function of other people. The so-called “real objects”, where the hard camp assumes that the fantasy-element is more important and the soft camp assumes that the real experience is more important.

Object Relations Theory distribution into the fatherly and motherly camp.
Created by Alina Müller

The camp of hard object relations theory puts more emphasis on the drive as suggested by Freud. They consider aggression to be an important factor that is inherent to the child and they deem the fantastic-element in the objects we internalize as important. Two of the representatives from the hard fatherly camp we’ll cover are Melanie Klein and Otto F. Kernberg.

On the other hand, the soft object relations theories argue that relationships are a motivational system by themselves. They focus less on aggression and destructive behaviour – because for them this is simply the result of the lack of love and empathy the patient experienced. Representatives of this camp we’ll look at are Balint, Fairbairn, and Winnicott.

Melanie Klein

Being in relationships means you will experience disappointment. And this is what the infant experiences early on. He’s not always fed, held, changed when he wants to and this is how forces of aggression show up early on, according to Klein. The infant is envious of the so-called “part-object”, the mother’s breast (and part because the breast is only a part of the entire object that is the mother). The breast has everything the child wants and it wants to have it all to himself. But now it gets tricky because the child also shouldn’t be aggressive towards the “good object” of the mother. Because that might destroy it, so the child has to find ways navigate its feelings of aggression.

Paranoid-Schizoid Position

This is how the child arrives at the paranoid-schizoid position in the first 4-6 months of life. In the paranoid-schizoid position objects are perceived as either all-good or all-bad. This is the most rudimentary way of defending against the anxiety of being left alone, hungry, unprotected. It allows the child to retain the fantasy that a perfect situation is attainable in which the perfect self merges with the perfect object and all anxiety is gone. It allows to project the child’s own aggression unto the bad part-object, that Klein termed “the bad breast”, that’s not available when the child is hungry, cold or afraid to be there to feed, comfort and warm it. This then seems to justify aggression if the self is all good and the other out there is all bad.

Depressive Position

The more abilities the child develops when it comes to perception and cognition, the more it realizes that the “bad” and the “good” breast are one and the same thing. It develops from perceiving only part-objects to perceiving the full object of the mother. And when the child starts to integrate the split-off parts into full objects it arrives at the depressive position.

With entering the depressive position comes grief about losing this idea of the perfect object and the perfect self. The idea that perfect love, a life free from anxiety (if only the good self could merge with the good object) is impossible. This also leads to the emergence of guilt for how the child acted towards the “bad” object.

Ideally, the child learns that the object is a separate person with their own wishes, feelings, and intentions. Which ultimately makes empathy possible. Additionally, through enough “good-enough” parenting (to borrow a term from Winnicott), the child can modify their archaic internalized fantasies so that they are closer to the real object of a good-enough mother.

Otto Kernberg

His central contribution was the integration of drive theory, the structural model of the id-ego-super-ego and object relational thinking, which lead to his ideas about the structural and organisation of personality. Let’s dissect this.

Object Relations Dyads

According to Kernberg, the experience of an infant is not guided by drives but by archaic “object relations dyads”. That is a self-representation and an object-representation (the dyad) that is connected through an intense affect (a basic emotion). He returns to Melanie Klein’s ideas that good and bad objects (and in turn the good and bad self) are internalized separately. Infants only have two states: either they are satisfied, feel safe and calm (and thus experience a positive affect) or they feel hungry, tired, anxious (and thus experience a negative affect). This early on, there is no way for an infant to bring those two experiences together.

In the beginning, anything that scares the infant is projected to the outside. This is relieving and allows to create an idea of the self as good and pleasurable. But it also creates a world of potentially scary and persecuting others in the world out there. The development of mature object relations entails the realization that both the self and others contain good and bad aspects. (Quite similar to Melanie Klein’s idea of the depressive position). That also means moving from defending against anxiety by splitting the self and the other in all-good or all-bad parts, to using more mature defense mechanisms, such as repression.

Borderline Personality Organization

Based on this differentiation, Kernberg developed his concept of the borderline personality organisation (not to be confused with borderline personality disorder!). With this concept he makes it possible to differentiate between levels of psychotic, borderline, and neurotic functioning.

He does this based on three functions the ego needs:

First of all, identity differentiation. On the psychotic level there aren’t even proper self- or object-representations. For psychotics it’s hard to distinguish where the self ends and the other begins. For a borderline organisation, there are self- and object-representations but they are organized based on all-good or all-bad principles. And for the neurotic/normal functioning there is a proper distinction of the self and the other, as well as an integration of good and bad aspects for the self and the object.

Second, Kernberg looks at the defenses used. On the psychotic and borderline level there are almost only primary immature defense mechanisms, such as projection, projective identification, splitting with idealization and devaluation. The neurotic/normal level can make use of secondary mature defense mechanisms, such as repression or sublimation.

The last function vital for the ego is reality testing. The neurotic can differentiate between reality and fantasy or imagination. On the borderline level there can be difficulty to do so reliable. On the psychotic level this function is not intact.

Kernberg also developed a treatment for patients with a borderline-level functioning (and you can see here which personality disorders that includes), which he called transference-focused-psychotherapy.

Michael Balint

Balints contribution to the motherly camp is his idea of the basic fault and primary love, which lead him to focus much more on a therapy that is very supporting. His approach puts a lot of focus on empathy and a lack of love in the primary relationship to the care-giver.

According to Baling a lack of “primary love” in the first relationship is the reason for the development of the “basic fault”. The basic fault is an experience of emptiness, meaninglessness, existential lack of some sort, emotional instability, no frustration/stress tolerance.

Aggression, destructive behaviour, narcissism are then simply the result of the lack of love and empathy the patient experienced.

The consequence of “basic fault” is the development of two potential characters or ways in which people try to experience the missing original state of unconditional love and belonging: One is the ocnophile character who becomes fixation on an object. This would be most likely the people coming to therapy who has immense expectations towards the therapist of being the perfect other to relieve them of their lack. The other is the philobatic character who avoids relationships, but rather seeks the feeling of union in nature or with the great wide opens.

William Fairbairn

William Fairbairn interestingly wasn’t a trained psychoanalysts and worked far off in Edinburgh away from psychodynamic circles. Therefore, it took a lot longer for his theories to be recognized. But the sheer distance to other psychodynamic influences made him develop theories that were fundamentally different to the Zeitgeist. His work can be considered pioneering both attachment theory and self psychology (usually without being credited).

In accordance with Klein, Fairbairn judged the dependency on the mother as more important for the child than any conflict in the sexual stages development. But while Klein still focused on the drives of the child in that early dependent relationships, Fairbairn focused on the “real” relationship between the mother and the child.

Fairbairn considers libido (a central term in Freud’s drive theory) not as a drive but a function of the ego searching for an object. He emphasized the vital need of us to to have a person we can love, accepts our love, and loves us in return.

What needs to be repressed is the intolerably bad internalized object that is first split off – similar to Melanie Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position. This does not include normal frustrations that everyone experiences in their childhood – absolutely no mother or primary care-giver is perfect. For psychopathology to develop Fairbairn says that there is an overbearing amount of deprivation and neglect in early childhood.

Donald Winnicott

Donald Winnicott is considered by some as the most prolific clinician within object relations theory. His central contributions include studies on how the psychic structure of a baby develops that includes the ability to be alone, the “true” and “false” self and the “transitional object”.

Central to being a functioning adult is the ability to tolerate uncomfortable inner states and being able to regulate them. Winnicott saw this as one of the central developments required in those early years in interaction with their care-giver.

Winnicott’s famous sentence: “There is no such thing as a baby.” hints at exactly the assumption we’ve covered with previous object relations theorists. In the beginning the baby doesn’t differentiate between itself and the mother. To the baby the mother is an extension to the self. She is not recognized as a separate object with her own feelings and needs.

The Transitional Object

During the process of recognizing others as separate object, most children make use of what Winnicott called the “transitional object”. The transitional object might be a teddy bear or blanket. It helps the child to bridge the gap between the inner and outer reality. It’s the first thing the child recognizes and owns as something “not-me”, becoming the recipient of both loving and hateful impulses. Any parent who tried to find the lost favourite teddy bear knows just how crucial those transitional objects are. And also that only the child is allowed to alter them, so better not try to wash them.

More in line with Melanie Klein, Winnicott acknowledges aggression as a normal development of object relations. He says: “What is a normal child like? Does he just eat and grow and smile sweetly? No, that is not what he is like. The normal child, if he has confidence in mother and father, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time, he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle, and to appropriate… At the start he absolutely needs to live in a circle of love and strength (with consequent tolerance) if he is not to be too fearful of his own thoughts and of his imaginings to make progress in his emotional development.”

For Winnicott, the mother has to survive the baby’s destructive impulses and remain emotionally attuned enough for the child to realize that the mother is her own person. Then it’s able to develop the healthy ability for concern and consideration for others.

True vs. False Self

The good-enough attunement of the mother allows for the child to recognize others as independent people and develop their own self. When the mother responds in a reassuring way to the baby’s smirks, feelings, facial expressions, the baby learns that it’s safe to express itself exactly how it feels. It gets a sense that it exists and that it has an impact on the world. That makes a true feeling of aliveness, creativity, connection, and authenticity possible.

The child might learn that it’s not safe to express its feelings authentically. This might happen if the mother doesn’t respond to the infant because she is depressed, on drugs, absent; or the infant experiences an environment that is overwhelming; or unsafe with way less than good enough attunement or ordinary care-giving. Then part of those innate feelings have to be repressed or defended against. According to Winnicott, this happens most often through excessively pleasing others, complying, anticipating other people’s needs and fulfilling them. All aimed at getting some positive response from the absent, hostile, or overwhelmed care-giver. This in turn often leads to feelings of emptiness and missing aliveness and unhappiness later on.

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