Object Relations Theory: A Quick Look

By the end of World War II, psychoanalytic theory was beginning to be influenced by pediatrics, child development theorists and observations of psychoanalysts who were calling into question the idea that humans are motivated purely by drives and needs to satisfy their own internal wishes and desires. It was Melanie Klein, a prominent British child analyst and theorist, who said “there is…no mental process which does not involve objects, external or internal; in other words, object relations are the center of emotional life”. So, what does all this mean? What is meant when we say “object,” and what does that word represent? I would like to spend a little time discussing the concept of object and object relations theory. I hope this primer will serve as a kind of overview of object relations theory and gives you an idea of basic concepts in object relations and how we might see it with our interactions with patients here in the hospital.

First, a word about Freud

Before we dive into object relations, let’s take a moment here to talk a little about what was happening in psychoanalytic theory. When Freud was trying to understand the human psyche, he proposed that we were creatures with both conscious and unconscious elements to our minds. In other words, he surmised that we had thoughts, feelings, wishes and fantasies that we were aware of, but that we also had those that were going on in the background, so to speak. Since Freud was a neurologist, he derived his ideas from the process of nerve growth and development. He thought that we would be driven to satisfy needs based on what our central nervous system could experience at any point in growth and development. For example, a newborn baby would be able to feel hunger and would therefore be driven to satisfy that need. As the child develops, other sensations would continue to grow and occupy the need for gratification. His idea grew until he developed his drive theory that suggested that we are born with specific needs and we are driven both consciously and unconsciously to fill those needs.

Freud eventually settled on a couple of fundamental drives that he felt motivated all humans. They could be stated as libido and aggression. Thought of in a broad sense we could say that we are driven by the need to love and to work. In whatever way we state them it is important to take from all this that Freud thought the drives were all derived from within; we are born with specific needs and we interact and relate with one another to fill those needs.

A very different view – but why choose?

What we will see with object relations theory is very different from Freud’s fundamental idea. The ideas of needs and how they develop and how we go about satisfying them are very different, with object relations emphasizing instead the need to be in relationship. I don’t think either view negates the other. In fact, most modern psychoanalysts maintain that both views are valid and can be seen in operation within an individual at any given point in time. In other words, the need to be in relationship and the need to satisfy innate internal drives can both be true. Having said that, let’s now turn our attention to object relations theory and see what this view is all about.

Object Relations theory

What is an object? An object is any person or thing with which we can interact and develop a relationship. Take cars, for example. A car is an object. We can give our cars personalities. We often think about them when we are not driving them. Some of us even name them. So, the car exists as an external object, but we also hold it in our minds. We can imagine it. We even have feelings about it. We may love our cars, or we may hate them. They can give us pleasure or pain. We even have some idea about what the new car we are about to buy will be like, based on the ones we have owned in the past. If all my cars have been amazing and have always given me good service and awesome adventures, then when it comes time to buy a new one, I may find myself having some of those feelings about the car I’m going to buy even before I buy it.

People are also objects. When we are babies, we interact with our primary caretakers and develop relationships with them from the get-go. This is what early object relations theorists were observing. They would watch babies and mothers interact with each other and it didn’t seem like drive theory explained what they were seeing. What they observed, what we all take for granted as obvious now, was babies trying to be in relationship with the mother. The exchange of expressions and emotions seemed to be transferred back and forth as if there was something going on between them that was not simply need gratification.

So, in this interaction between baby and mother we see the formation of a baby’s recognition that the mother exists as a real person, an external object, and at the same time the mother is being internalized. She exists in the mind of the baby as well as in reality. The early object relations theorists started there. The first object for the baby is the mother, or whoever serves as the primary caretaker. Just like with Freud, the object relations theorists imagined that the object forms in the conscious mind as well as in the unconscious mind. This is the foundation of all object relation development. While object relations theories are complex and highly varied, they all have in common the emphasis on the importance of object formation and ties. Our minds are a complex array of many object relationships. Our sense of ourselves and who we are in the world are formed by this complex matrix of objects.

The early theorists believed that our sense of identity, of who we are, is reflected to us in the form of our primary caretaker. D. W. Winnicott said “there is no baby without a mother.” As he observed the pairing with baby and mother, he noticed that the developing sense of who the baby was in the baby’s own mind was formed by what the baby saw reflected in mother. We can imagine all sorts of things that can come from that. “You’re a good person and people love you” will form a very different self-impression from “you’re nothing but trouble and will never amount to anything.” This tells us then that how we see ourselves and how we see others is formed by relationships that we have externally as well as internally. The objects that we form in our minds, both conscious and unconscious, form life-long attachments and become templates by which we automatically judge future encounters.


Stephen M. Taylor, M. D.

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