Object relations theory describes the development, structure and functioning of the human psyche. Although evolved from ideas earlier in the 1900’s, it came to fruition with British psychoanalytic thinking and practice in the 1940s and 50s. Its most notable proponent was Child Psychotherapist Melanie Klein, but further developed by others such as Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott and Harry Guntrip. Understanding object relations remains central to understanding how psychotherapy works.
The theory describes how our infant and childhood experience of being cared for and interacted with by our primary carers (mother, father, siblings, grandparents, carers) and other formative figures, as well as situations and events shapes how we then relate to others and to situations throughout life.
Later experiences can to some degree reshape these early experiences. Aspects of relationships and experiences are taken in and absorbed and internalised to form ‘objects’. These exist at the core of our subjective experience, acting as dynamic templates that drive and inform how we think, interpret and perceive our world and expectations and responses towards others and situations.
Why do object relations matter?
If an infant has the experience of a punishing parent who put them down, figures they later encounter can activate memories of how they perceived and responded to that parent and cause them to behave in similar ways.
The theory describes how as babies we understand Objects by their function that relate to parts of a person (part-objects). Klein famously spoke of the “Good” and “Bad” breast; when available to provide comfort and sustenance the breast is perceived as good, while the unavailable breast can become depriving and persecuting in its absence. With their limited mental capacity babies use “splitting” to make sense of experience, with people and things existing in their mind as either good or bad, with no capacity to conceptualise more mixed feelings.
The good enough mother
Through “good enough” parenting (Winnicott) these “part objects” can gradually be understood to exist as “whole objects”. So the breast that provides food is the same breast that can frustrate or persecute in its absence. In the same way an understanding is reached that not only do they belong to the same mother but that the mother who stirs feelings of love in them is the same mother as the one that stirs more frustrated negative feelings. The working through of these processes allows us to be able to tolerate ambiguity, in other words, uncertainty and mixed feelings.
The objects we internalise are not necessarily based on reality but a mix of lived-experience and fantasy. Object Relations, especially those we internalise before we have developed verbal reasoning, become deeply ingrained within our psyche and tend to operate unnoticed by us at an unconscious level. To differentiate between fantasy and unconscious fantasy that takes place at an unconscious level, Klein changed the spelling to “phantasy”.
Psychotherapy helps us to explore our experience of our internalised primary relationships so they are better understood as part of understanding why we think and relate as we do. The therapeutic relationship can be of prime importance in exploring relational dynamics and in healing dysfunctional dynamics.
The deeper level of why we may operate and behave as we do does not cure all ills, but it can offer us a far greater degree of choice and understanding in terms of how we relate to others and situations and in how we perceive and construct our worlds.
David Bor is a Psychoanalytic Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist who works with young people from the youngest infants through to young adults up to 23 years of age, whose difficulties can range from the less complex through moderate, to severe mental health issues. He sees clients from our Hove and Lewes practices.