Object relations theory
Object relations theory is a psychodynamic
Psychodynamics is the theory and systematic study of the psychological forces that underlie human behavior, especially the dynamic relations between conscious motivation and unconscious motivation...

 theory within psychoanalytic psychology. The theory describes the process of developing a mind as one grows in relation to others in the environment.

The basis of the theory is that the way we relate to people (and situations) in our adult world was programmed into us by the way we experienced our parents when we were infants. For instance if a man is suspicious of his boss at work (when none of his co-workers are suspicious), we might theorize that the man is viewing his boss through the template of his frustrating mother when he was an infant. Perhaps the mother had to work long hours and the infant did not like being separated from her. The infant's experience of the mother was that the mother intentionally frustrated him. So one of the Objects he carries with him in his unconscious is that of an intentionally frustrating authority figure. This is one of his Objects he draws upon to help him understand his relationships and predict people's behavior in the present.

The Self (or subject) relates to Objects in the unconscious. "Objects" are usually images (internalized) of one's mother
A mother, mum, mom, momma, or mama is a woman who has raised a child, given birth to a child, and/or supplied the ovum that grew into a child. Because of the complexity and differences of a mother's social, cultural, and religious definitions and roles, it is challenging to specify a universally...

 or father. Objects can also be parts of a person, for instance an infant relating to the breast
The breast is the upper ventral region of the torso of a primate, in left and right sides, which in a female contains the mammary gland that secretes milk used to feed infants.Both men and women develop breasts from the same embryological tissues...

. Objects may be both real or things in one's inner world (one's internalized image of others). Object relationship
Interpersonal relationship
An interpersonal relationship is an association between two or more people that may range from fleeting to enduring. This association may be based on limerence, love, solidarity, regular business interactions, or some other type of social commitment. Interpersonal relationships are formed in the...

s are initially formed during early interactions with primary care givers. These early patterns can be altered with experience, but often continue to exert a strong influence throughout life.

Coiner of the term "pre-Oedipal," Otto Rank
Otto Rank
Otto Rank was an Austrian psychoanalyst, writer, teacher and therapist. Born in Vienna as Otto Rosenfeld, he was one of Sigmund Freud's closest colleagues for 20 years, a prolific writer on psychoanalytic themes, an editor of the two most important analytic journals, managing director of Freud's...

 was the first to create a modern theory of "object relations" in the late 1920s. It was later independently formulated by Ronald Fairbairn
Ronald Fairbairn
William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn was a Scottish psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and a central figure in the development of the object relations theory of psychoanalysis.-Life:He was born in Edinburgh in 1889...

 in 1952, but the line of thought being referred to first emerged in 1917, beginning with Ferenczi and, later, Rank
-Position within a command hierarchy requiring obedience:*Military rank* Police rank* Fire service rank* Nobility, ranks of nobility and peerage* Catholic Church hierarchy* Diplomatic rank* Taxonomic rank, a position within a taxonomy...

. Although first formulated in the 1920s by Otto Rank
Otto Rank
Otto Rank was an Austrian psychoanalyst, writer, teacher and therapist. Born in Vienna as Otto Rosenfeld, he was one of Sigmund Freud's closest colleagues for 20 years, a prolific writer on psychoanalytic themes, an editor of the two most important analytic journals, managing director of Freud's...

, object relations theory was extended in the 1940s and 50s by British psychologists Ronald Fairbairn, Melanie Klein
Melanie Klein
Melanie Reizes Klein was an Austrian-born British psychoanalyst who devised novel therapeutic techniques for children that had an impact on child psychology and contemporary psychoanalysis...

, Donald Winnicott
Donald Winnicott
Donald Woods Winnicott was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst who was especially influential in the field of object relations theory. He was a leading member of the British Independent Group of the British Psychoanalytic Society, and a close associate of Marion Milner...

, Harry Guntrip
Harry Guntrip
Harry Guntrip was a psychologist known for his major contributions to object relations theory. He was a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and a psychotherapist and lecturer at the Department of Psychiatry, Leeds University, and also a Methodist minister. He was described by John D...

, Scott Stuart, and others.

Objects are initially comprehended in the infant
A newborn or baby is the very young offspring of a human or other mammal. A newborn is an infant who is within hours, days, or up to a few weeks from birth. In medical contexts, newborn or neonate refers to an infant in the first 28 days after birth...

 mind by their functions and are termed "part objects." The breast that feeds the hungry infant is the "good breast." The hungry infant that finds no breast is in relation to the "bad breast."

Internal objects are formed by the patterns emerging in one's repeated subjective experience of the care taking environment. These internalized images may or may not be accurate representations of the actual, external others. With a "good enough" "facilitating environment" part object functions eventually transform into a comprehension of whole objects. This corresponds with the ability to tolerate ambiguity, to see that both the "good" and the "bad" breast are a part of the same "mummy."


While Fairbairn popularized the term "object relations," Melanie Klein's work tends to be most commonly identified with the terms "object relations theory" and "British object relations," at least in contemporary North America, though the influence of 'what is known as the British independent perspective
British Independent Group (psychoanalysis)
The Independent or Middle Group of British analysts represents one of the three distinct sub-schools of the British Psychoanalytic Society, and 'developed what is known as the British independent perspective, which argued that the primary motivation of the child is object-seeking rather than drive...

, which argued that the primary motivation of the child is object seeking rather than drive gratification' is becoming increasingly recognized.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

 originally identified people in a subject's environment with the term "object" to identify people as the object of drives. Fairbairn took a radical departure from Freud by positing that humans were not seeking satisfaction of the drive, but actually seek the satisfaction that comes in relation to real others. Klein and Fairbairn were working along similar lines, but unlike Fairbairn, Klein always held that she was not departing from Freudian theory, but simply elaborating early developmental phenomena consistent with Freudian theory.

Within the London psychoanalytic community, a conflict of loyalties took place between Klein and object relations theory (sometimes referred to as "id psychology"), and Anna Freud
Anna Freud
Anna Freud was the sixth and last child of Sigmund and Martha Freud. Born in Vienna, she followed the path of her father and contributed to the newly born field of psychoanalysis...

 and ego psychology
Ego psychology
Ego psychology is a school of psychoanalysis rooted in Sigmund Freud's structural id-ego-superego model of the mind.An individual interacts with the external world as well as responds to internal forces. Many psychoanalysts use a theoretical construct called the ego to explain how that is done...

. In America, Anna Freud dominated American psychoanalysis in 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. American ego psychology was furthered in the works of Hartmann, Kris, Loewenstein, Rapaport, Erikson, Jacobson, and Mahler
Margaret Mahler
Margaret Schönberger Mahler was a Hungarian physician, who later became interested in psychiatry. She was a central figure on the world stage of psychoanalysis...

. In London, those who refused to choose sides were termed the "middle school," whose members included Michael Balint
Michael Balint
Michael Balint or Bálint Mihály was a Hungarian psychoanalyst and proponent of the Object Relations school.-Life:...

 and Winnicott. The strong animosity in England between the school of Anna Freud and that of Melanie Klein was transplanted to the US, where the Anna Freud group dominated totally until the 1970s. Until the 1970s, few American psychoanalysts were influenced by the thinking of Melanie Klein.

Fairbairn revised much of Freud's model of the mind. He identified how people who were abused as children internalize that experience. Fairbairn's "moral defense" is the tendency seen in survivors of abuse to take all the bad upon themselves, each believing he is morally bad so his caretaker can be regarded as good. This is a use of splitting
Splitting (psychology)
Splitting may mean two things: splitting of the mind, and splitting of mental concepts . The latter is thinking purely in extremes Splitting (also called all-or-nothing thinking in cognitive distortion) may mean two things: splitting of the mind, and splitting of mental concepts (or black and...

 as a defense to maintain an attachment relationship in an unsafe world.

Unconscious phantasy

Klein termed the psychological aspect of instinct, unconscious phantasy (deliberately spelled with 'ph' to distinguish it from the word 'fantasy'). Phantasy is a given of psychic life which moves outward towards the world. These image-potentials are given a priority with the drives and eventually allow the development of more complex states of mental life. Unconscious phantasy in the infant’s emerging mental life is modified by the environment as the infant has contact with reality.

From the moment the infant starts interacting with the outer world, he is engaged in testing his phantasies in a reality setting. I want to suggest that the origin of thought lies in this process of testing phantasy against reality; that is, that thought is not only contrasted with phantasy, but based on it and derived from it.

The role of unconscious phantasy is essential in the development of a capacity for thinking. In Bion's
Wilfred Bion
Wilfred Ruprecht Bion DSO was an influential British psychoanalyst, who became president of the British Psychoanalytical Society from 1962 to 1965....

 terms, the phantasy image is a preconception that will not be a thought until experience combines with a realization in the world of experience. The preconception and realization combine to take form as a concept that can be thought. The classic example of this is the infant’s observed rooting for the nipple in the first hours of life. The instinctual rooting is the preconception. The provision of the nipple provides the realization in the world of experience, and through time, with repeated experience, the preconception and realization combined to create the concept. Mental capacity builds upon previous experience as the environment and infant interact.

The first bodily experiences begin to build up the first memories, and external realities are progressively woven into the texture of phantasy. Before long, the child's phantasies are able to draw upon plastic images as well as sensations—visual, auditory, kinæsthetic, touch, taste, smell images, etc. And these plastic images and dramatic representations of phantasy are progressively elaborated along with articulated perceptions of the external world.

With adequate care, the infant is able to tolerate increasing awareness of experience which is underlain by unconscious phantasy and leads to attainment of consecutive developmental achievements, "the positions" in Kleinian theory.

Projective identification

As a specific term, projective identification
Projective identification
Projective Identification is 'a term first used by Melanie Klein to describe a process whereby parts of the ego are thought of as forced into another person who is then expected to become identified with whatever has been projected'....

 is introduced by Klein in “Notes on some schizoid mechanisms.”

[Projection] helps the ego to overcome anxiety by ridding it of danger and badness. Introjection of the good object is also used by the ego as a defense against anxiety. . . .The processes of splitting off parts of the self and projecting them into objects are thus of vital importance for normal development as well as for abnormal object-relation. The effect of introjection on object relations is equally important. The introjection of the good object, first of all the mother’s breast, is a precondition for normal development . . . It comes to form a focal point in the ego and makes for cohesiveness of the ego. . . . I suggest for these processes the term ‘projective identification’.

Klein imagined this function as a defense which contributes to the normal development of the infant, including ego structure and the development of object relations. The introjection
Introjection is a psychoanalytical term with a variety of meanings.Generally, it is regarded as the process where the subject replicates in itself behaviors, attributes or other fragments of the surrounding world, especially of other subjects...

 of the good breast provides a location where one can hide from persecution, an early step in developing a capacity to self-soothe.

Ogden identifies four functions that projective identification may serve. As in the traditional Kleinian model, it serves as a defense. Projective identification serves as a mode of communication. It is a form of object relations, and “a pathway for psychological change.” As a form of object relationship, projective identification is a way of relating with others who are not seen as entirely separate from the individual. Instead, this relating takes place “between the stage of the subjective object and that of true object relatedness”.

The positions

The positions of Kleinian theory, underlain by unconscious phantasy, are stages in the normal development of ego and object relationships, each with its own characteristic defenses and organizational structure. The paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions occur in the pre-oedipal, oral phase of development.

In contrast to Fairbairn and later Guntrip, Klein believed that both good and bad objects are introjected by the infant, the internalization of good object being essential to the development of healthy ego function. Klein conceptualized the depressive position as “the most mature form of psychological organization”, which continues to develop throughout the life span.

The depressive position occurs during the second quarter of the first year. Prior to that the infant is in the paranoid-schizoid position, which is characterized by persecutory anxieties and the mechanisms of splitting, projection, introjection, and omnipotence—which includes idealizing and denial—to defend against these anxieties. Depressive and paranoid-schizoid modes of experience continue to intermingle throughout the first few years of childhood.

Paranoid-schizoid position

The paranoid-schizoid position is characterized by part object relationships. Part objects are a function of splitting, which takes place in phantasy. At this developmental stage, experience can only be perceived as all good or all bad. As part objects, it is the function that is identified by the experiencing self, rather than whole and autonomous others. The hungry infant desires the good breast who feeds it. Should that breast appear, it is the good breast. If the breast does not appear, the hungry and now frustrated infant in its distress, has destructive phantasies dominated by oral aggression towards the bad, hallucinated breast.

Klein notes that in splitting the object, the ego is also split. The infant who phantasies destruction of the bad breast is not the same infant that takes in the good breast, at least not until obtaining the depressive position, at which point good and bad can be tolerated simultaneously in the same person and the capacity for remorse and reparation ensue.

The anxieties of the paranoid schizoid position are of a persecutory nature, fear of the ego’s annihilation. Splitting allows good to stay separate from bad. Projection is an attempt to eject the bad in order to control through omnipotent mastery. Splitting is never fully effective, according to Klein, as the ego tends towards integration.

Depressive position

Klein saw the depressive position as an important developmental milestone that continues to mature throughout the life span. The splitting and part object relations that characterize the earlier phase are succeeded by the capacity to perceive that the other who frustrates is also the one who gratifies. Schizoid defenses are still in evidence, but feelings of guilt, grief, and the desire for reparation gain dominance in the developing mind.

In the depressive position, the infant is able to experience others as whole, which radically alters object relationships from the earlier phase. “Before the depressive position, a good object is not in any way the same thing as a bad object. It is only in the depressive position that polar qualities can be seen as different aspects of the same object.” Increasing nearness of good and bad brings a corresponding integration of ego.

In a development which Grotstein terms the "primal split", the infant becomes aware of separateness from the mother. This awareness allows guilt to arise in response to the infant’s previous aggressive phantasies when bad was split from good. The mother’s temporary absences allow for continuous restoration of her “as an image of representation” in the infant mind. Symbolic thought may now arise, and can only emerge once access to the depressive position has been obtained. With the awareness of the primal split, a space is created in which the symbol, the symbolized, and the experiencing subject coexist. History, subjectivity, interiority, and empathy all become possible.

The anxieties characteristic of the depressive position shift from a fear of being destroyed to a fear of destroying others. In fact or phantasy, one now realizes the capacity to harm or drive away a person who one ambivalently loves. The defenses characteristic of the depressive position include the manic defenses, repression and reparation. The manic defenses are the same defenses evidenced in the paranoid-schizoid position, but now mobilized to protect the mind from depressive anxiety. As the depressive position brings about an increasing integration in the ego, earlier defenses change in character, becoming less intense and allow increasing awareness of psychic reality.

In working through depressive anxiety, projections are withdrawn, allowing the other more autonomy, reality, and a separate existence. The infant, whose destructive phantasies were directed towards the bad mother who frustrated, now begins to realize that bad and good, frustrating and satiating, it is always the same mother. Unconscious guilt for destructive phantasies arises in response to the continuing love and attention provided by caretakers.

[As] fears of losing the loved one become active, a very important step is made in the development. These feelings of guilt and distress now enter as a new element into the emotion of love. They become an inherent part of love, and influence it profoundly both in quality and quantity.

From this developmental milestone come a capacity for sympathy, responsibility to and concern for others, and an ability to identify with the subjective experience of people one cares about. With the withdrawal of the destructive projections, repression of the aggressive impulses takes place.. The child allows caretakers a more separate existence, which facilitates increasing differentiation of inner and outer reality. Omnipotence is lessened, which corresponds to a decrease in guilt and the fear of loss.

When all goes well, the developing child is able to comprehend that external others are autonomous people with their own needs and subjectivity.

Previously, extended absences of the object (the good breast, the mother) was experienced as persecutory, and, according to the theory of unconscious phantasy, the persecuted infant phantisizes destruction of the bad object. The good object who then arrives is not the object which did not arrive. Likewise, the infant who destroyed the bad object is not the infant who loves the good object.

In phantasy, the good internal mother can be psychically destroyed by the aggressive impulses. It is crucial that the real parental figures are around to demonstrate the continuity of their love. In this way, the child perceives that what happens to good objects in phantasy does not happen to them in reality. Psychic reality is allowed to evolve as a place separate from the literalness of the physical world.

Through repeated experience with good enough parenting, the internal image that the child has of external others, that is the child's internal object, is modified by experience and the image transforms, merging experiences of good and bad which becomes more similar to the real object (e.g. the mother, who can be both good and bad). In Freudian terms, the pleasure principle
Pleasure principle (psychology)
In Freudian psychology, the pleasure principle is the psychoanalytic concept describing people seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering in order to satisfy their biological and psychological needs...

 is modified by the reality principle
Reality principle
In Freudian psychology, the reality principle is the psychoanalytic concept describing circumstantial reality compelling a man or a woman to defer instant gratification...


Melanie Klein saw this surfacing from the depressive position as a prerequisite for social life. Moreover, she viewed the establishment of an inside and an outside world as the start of interpersonal relationships.

Klein argued that people who never succeed in working through the depressive position in their childhood will, as a result, continue to struggle with this problem in adult life. For example: the cause that a person may maintain suffering from intense guilt feelings over the death of a loved one, may be found in the unworked- through depressive position. The guilt is there because of a lack of separation
Separation may refer to:* Separation , the process by which a service member leaves active duty* Separation , rules to minimise the risk of collision between aircraft in flight...

between inside and outside and also as a defense mechanism to defend the self against unbearable feelings of intense sadness and sorrow, and subsequently the internal object against the unbearable rage of the self, which is feared can destroy the (internal) object forever.

Further thinking regarding the positions

Wilfred Bion
Wilfred Bion
Wilfred Ruprecht Bion DSO was an influential British psychoanalyst, who became president of the British Psychoanalytical Society from 1962 to 1965....

 articulates the dynamic nature of the positions, a point emphasised by Thomas Ogden, and expanded by John Steiner
John Steiner
John Steiner is an English actor. Tall, thin and gaunt, Steiner attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and worked for a few years at the BBC. Steiner featured in a lead role in a television production of Design for Living by Noel Coward. Later he found further work primarily in films...

 in terms of '"The equilibrium between the paranoid-schizoid and the depressive positions"'. Ogden and James Grotstein have continued to explore early infantile states of mind, and incorporating the work of Donald Meltzer
Donald Meltzer
Donald Meltzer was a Kleinian psychoanalyst whose teaching made him influential in many countries. He became known for making clinical headway with difficult childhood conditions such as autism, and also for his theoretical innovations and developments...

, Ester Bick and others, postulate a position preceding the paranoid-schizoid. Grotstein, following Bion, also hypothesizes a transcendent position which emerges following attainment of the depressive position. This aspect of both Ogden and Grotstein's work remains controversial for many within classical object relations theory.

Death drive

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

 developed the concept object relation to describe or emphasize that bodily drive
Drive theory
The terms drive theory and drive reduction theory refer to a diverse set of motivational theories in psychology. Drive theory is based on the principle that organisms are born with certain physiological needs and that a negative state of tension is created when these needs are not satisfied...

s satisfy their need through a medium, an object, on a specific locus. The central thesis in Melanie Klein
Melanie Klein
Melanie Reizes Klein was an Austrian-born British psychoanalyst who devised novel therapeutic techniques for children that had an impact on child psychology and contemporary psychoanalysis...

's object relations theory was that objects play a decisive role in the development of a subject and can be either part-objects or whole-objects, i.e. a single organ (a mother's breast) or a whole person (a mother). Consequently both a mother or just the mother's breast can be the locus of satisfaction for a drive. Furthermore, according to traditional psychoanalysis, there are at least two types of drives, the libido
Libido refers to a person's sex drive or desire for sexual activity. The desire for sex is an aspect of a person's sexuality, but varies enormously from one person to another, and it also varies depending on circumstances at a particular time. A person who has extremely frequent or a suddenly...

 (mythical counterpart: Eros), and the death
Death is the permanent termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism. Phenomena which commonly bring about death include old age, predation, malnutrition, disease, and accidents or trauma resulting in terminal injury....

 drive (mythical counterpart: Thanatos
In Greek mythology, Thanatos was the daemon personification of death. He was a minor figure in Greek mythology, often referred to but rarely appearing in person...

). Thus, the objects can be receivers of both love
Love is an emotion of strong affection and personal attachment. In philosophical context, love is a virtue representing all of human kindness, compassion, and affection. Love is central to many religions, as in the Christian phrase, "God is love" or Agape in the Canonical gospels...

 and hate, the affective effects of the libido
Libido refers to a person's sex drive or desire for sexual activity. The desire for sex is an aspect of a person's sexuality, but varies enormously from one person to another, and it also varies depending on circumstances at a particular time. A person who has extremely frequent or a suddenly...

 and the death drive.

Influences on art

Destruction of the Father by Louise Bourgeois speaks of her experience with a male dominated household, in which she was not allowed to speak her mind freely. The work, abstracted and unobvious, is about her physically wanting to eat her father because of the frustration he caused her as a child. This relates to the part of the theory in which the infant will exhibit biting and chewing tendencies as an act of frustration.

Kelly Jacobson's Origin of Mouthstones exhibited bits of teeth and fossilized bite marks embedded in sand and stone. That paired with her silent video of inaudible speech point to lack of communication resulting in frustration.

Continuing developments in the theory

Attachment theory
Attachment theory
Attachment theory describes the dynamics of long-term relationships between humans. Its most important tenet is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. Attachment theory is an interdisciplinary study...

, researched by John Bowlby
John Bowlby
Edward John Mostyn "John" Bowlby was a British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, notable for his interest in child development and for his pioneering work in attachment theory.- Family background :...

 and others, has continued to deepen our understanding of early object relationships. While a different strain of psychoanalytic theory and research, the findings in attachment studies have continued to support the validity of the developmental progressions described in object relations. Recent decades in developmental psychological research, for example on the onset of a "theory of mind" in children, has suggested that the formation of the mental world is enabled by the infant-parent interpersonal interaction which was the main thesis of British object-relations tradition (e.g. Fairbairn, 1952).

See also

External links

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