Object Relations (Psychoanalysis)

Object relations theory is the theory that describes the relationships between different people, mainly among family members, most notably between a child and the mother. The basic assumption is that people instigate relationships with others and if one fails to build and form those relationships early on it will lead to problems later on in life. It also deals with the relationship between the internalized object and the subject as well as with external objects. It is for this reason that one has relationships with an internal mother along with an external mother.

Internalizing of object relations alludes to the thought that in all inter-relations between an infant or a child with a parental figure, it is not a representation or figure of the other that the child or infant internalizes, but rather the child internalizes the relationship between itself and the parent, in the shape of a self image interacting with the other object image.

Object relations theory, developed in the 1950s by British psychologists Harry Guntrip, Donald Winnicot and Ronald Fairbairn, is an ego development theory which says the ego (self) of a person only develops and exists in relation to another individual object. During the first three years of life a person separates and compartmentalizes perspectives of experience, which aids in understanding to distinguish identity from others.

Many studies have been conducted to understand how a baby develops its sense of identity. It has been learned that at first a baby cannot differentiate itself from its mother or from anything else; the consciousness of a baby exists in what is known as "undifferential" state. Slowly, the baby begins to realize and become aware that there is more to its universe than itself, but there is also someone else; in this case the mother. The baby then begins to separate experiences as those that are "self" and those that are others. All these unconscious patterns that babies establish help in the later development of their personality.

Object relations theory advances the theory that that one's ego is comprised of three parts, the "other object," the "self object" and the relationship between them. There are three basic affects or relationships between the self object and the other object that are the foundations of the building of one's personality. The three affects are frustration, rejection and attachment. These affects are always operating within the person regardless of personality, and since they are mutually dependent, one must have all of them. However, depending on the personality of the person one of these affects is stronger; some people are frustration based, some are rejection based and some are attachment based.

Frustration based refers to the person's feeling that needs, luxuries and comforts are not adequately being met. The "self" of that person is of non-satisfaction: dissatisfied, agitated, impatient, disturbed and uncomfortable. These conditions are not newly acquired, but are patterns that have been deeply conditioned since childhood. Many people may feel frustrated although their needs are being met, but they are incapable of recognizing this due to this conditioned pattern. Usually, although they consciously realize that their needs are being satisfied, they will always find something else to make them frustrated. Sometimes, as a way of defending their frustrated feelings, these people will frustrate others and cause anxiety to others. All this is because the person's "self" is frustration based.

Attachment based refers to the person whose ego requires and likes to perpetuate and maintain a stable and comfortable relationship with others. In other words, such a person does not like change and would like to hold on to anything -- person, feeling or job -- that makes them happy and satisfied.

Rejection based refers to the people who have a very small "self" and consider themselves as weak, tiny and insignificant with tremendous feelings of rejection. They view all other people as abusive, rejecting and powerful. They go through life anticipating rejection and humiliation and try to defend themselves against those feelings. In order to protect themselves against more rejection, they act in a very nice manner and offer their abilities or services to others to overcome their vulnerabilities.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Object Relations and the Family Process
Randall S. Klein.
Praeger Publishers, 1990
Object Relations, the Self, and the Group: A Conceptual Paradigm
Charles Ashbach; Victor L. Schermer.
Routledge, 1994
The Assessment of Object Relations Phenomena in Adolescents: Tat and Rorschach Measures
Francis D. Kelly.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Adolescent Aggression and Imagery: Contributions from Object Relations and Social Cognitive Theory
Lennings, Chris J.
Adolescence, Vol. 31, No. 124, Winter 1996
Relatedness, Self-Definition, and Mental Representation: Essays in Honor of Sidney J. Blatt
John S. Auerbach; Kenneth N. Levy; Carrie E. Schaffer.
Brunner-Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Object Relations and the Rorschach"
The Psychological Assessment of Abused and Traumatized Children
Francis D. Kelly.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Object Relations Development in Abused and Traumatized Children: Theoretical and Clinical Considerations"
Psychodiagnosis in Schizophrenia
Irving B. Weiner.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Object Relations"
Event Theory: A Piaget-Freud Integration
Irene Fast; Robert E. Erard; Carol J. Fitzpatrick; Anne E. Thompson; Linda Young.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Framework for a Theory of Object Relations"
Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought
Stephen A. Mitchell; Margaret J. Black.
Basic Books, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The British Object Relations School: W. R. D. Fairbairn and D. W. Winnicott"
Psychological Foundations of Economic Behavior
Paul J. Albanese.
Praeger, 1988
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Intimate Relations of the Consistent Consumer: Psychoanalytic Object Relations Theory Applied to Economics"
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