Introduction to Object Relations Theory

Melanie Klein, Otto Kernberg, Donald Winnicott, and more.

Alina | Psychodynamic Psychology

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Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

How do our early experiences shape our perception, behaviour, and emotions?

What is the link between our early relationships and relationships later in life?

How does the way our parents treated us impact how we treat ourselves and others later on?

Why “Object Relations” Theory?

These were the questions object relations theorists tried to answer.

Freud’s original drive theory wasn’t enough to understand and treat all psychopathologies. Which is where object relations theory came in, flourished in the 1940s, 1950s and still is one of the most impactful psychodynamic schools to date.

You might be confused or bothered by the word “object”. Object was a term already used by Freud in his original drive theory because he used a lot of biological or military vocabulary and because he was focused on the drive, the object was the person or thing that would satisfy the drive.

Object relations theorists didn’t assume that the object is merely there to satisfy a drive but that there is a relation that involves emotions, action and reaction, a longing for safety, connection, love, aggression, autonomy, separation. In this way, the object relations theory turned Freud’s one-person psychology into a two-person psychology. And it’s this early relationship that has lasting effects for the development of one’s personality. When object relations theorist talk about the object, they usually refer to the mother or early care-giver.

The way that those early objects still have an impact on us later in life is because we internalize them. You could say they live on inside of us. We use those internal objects as blueprints, they hold the ideas we have about who we are and how to treat ourselves (the so-called self-representations) and ideas we have about others and what to expect from them (the so-called…

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