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What is Object Relations Theory?

By Jessica Seminara
Updated Feb 03, 2024
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Object relations theory is a psychodynamic theory that builds upon and expands Sigmund Freud's work on psychoanalysis to try to explain how an infant subject's mind develops in relation to objects — usually people or parts of people — in his environment. In this theory, the infant subject forms mental concepts by testing his preconceptions against reality. In the first half-year of life, the infant ideally moves through two positions, or developmental stages. The infant learns to tolerate conflicting feelings toward objects and better distinguish between the self and the other. These milestones are crucial for integration of the ego and healthy psychological development into adulthood.

British psychologist Ronald Fairbairn was the first to officially use the term "object relations theory" in 1952. Fairbairn and psychoanalyst Melanie Klein are considered co-founders of the object relations school. Other well known object relations theorists include Harry Guntrip, Margaret Mahler, and D.W. Winnicott.

Although Klein considered object relations theory an expansion of Freud's work, a rift developed between the British object relations theorists and the American school of ego psychology, based upon the work of Anna Freud. Sigmund Freud had theorized about object relation, but believed that the subject relates to the object with the aim of satisfying his drives. In contrast, Klein and other object relations theorists held that the subject's aim is fulfillment of the inherent desire to relate to the objects in his environment.

From her psychoanalysis of young children, Klein theorized that infants' minds begin to develop by testing preconceptions against reality. Preconceptions can be thought of as instincts, such as a newborn's search for his mother's nipple. According to this theory, as the infant gains experience with his environment, he forms concepts which he can fantasize about.

In this early stage, which Klein calls the paranoid-schizoid position, the infant's environment is filled with part-objects, such as his mother's breast, or his father's hand. The infant learns to focus energy on these objects, and creates internal objects, which are mental representations of the external objects, about which he fantasizes. Objects which satisfy the infant's drives are seen as "good" objects, and objects which frustrate his drives are seen as "bad" objects.

It is important to note that in the paranoid-schizoid position, the infant subject cannot reconcile good and bad feelings toward the same object, and so sees them as separate objects. The "good" breast that satisfies the infant's desire to be fed is not the same breast as the "bad" one that lets him go hungry. The inability to tolerate conflicting feelings toward the same object is known as "splitting," and is a common psychic defense mechanism for subjects in the paranoid-schizoid position.

At this stage of development, the infant subject also makes use of other defense mechanisms. Introjection is a mechanism whereby the infant uses a fantasy to internalize comforting aspects of the objects in his environment, such as feeling safe in the refuge of his mother's breast. Projection is a mechanism whereby the infant subject psychologically transfers his own feelings to an object in his environment, and can thus rid himself of destructive or threatening feelings. The infant also uses projective identification, which is a mechanism whereby he transfers part of himself to an object in order to feel a sense of control over that object.

As the infant subject matures psychologically, he enters what Klein calls the depressive position. This should occur when the infant is three to four months old. At this stage, the infant learns to reconcile conflicting feelings, and realizes that the same object can have both positive and negative, or drive-satisfying and drive-frustrating, aspects. The environment that was dominated by part-objects in the paranoid-schizoid position is now populated with whole-objects; he relates to his mother rather than just his mother's breast. In the depressive position, the infant subject begins to integrate the ego, and whole-objects are recognized as separate, autonomous beings.

Due to the prominence of ego psychology, the British school of object relations theory was largely ignored in American psychology until the 1970s. Modern offshoots of object relations theory include attachment theory and self psychology.

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