Object Relations

Object Relations is not so much a therapy as a set of theories which postulate that relationships, beginning with the mother-infant dyad, are primary, and that intrapsychic, interpersonal, and group experiences lay the foundation for the development of individual identity. The individual's interpretation of these relationships- both conscious and unconscious- becomes the basis for later relations with others, in friendship, marriage, and raising a family and in society at large. To understand how early life actively influences later life, we examine all stages of development, beginning with infancy.

We also look at how internal objects modify and are modified by life experience, from childhood through old age. Object relations theory is an offshoot of psychoanalytic theory that emphasises interpersonal relations, primarily in the family and especially between mother and child. "Object" actually means person (Martin Buber, where are you now that we need you?), and especially the significant person that is the object or target of another's feelings or intentions. "Relations" refers to interpersonal relations and suggests the residues of past relationships that affect a person in the present.

Object relations theorists are interested in inner images of the self and other and how they manifest themselves in interpersonal situations. A number of prominent theorists have contributed to the development of Object relations: Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, W.R.D. Fairbairn, Henry Guntrip, Edith Jacobson, Heinz Kohut, Otto Kernberg, Melanie Klein, Margaret Mahler and D.W. Winnicott. While Kohut's "self psychology" is considered an offshoot of object relations. Together these theorists have developed a number of central concepts which define object relations as an approach to psychotherapy. 

They are:

Object. An object is that to which a subject relates. Michael St. Clair writes, "For example, I love my children, I fear snakes, I am angry with my neighbour." Drives like those for sex, hunger, and affection have objects. In object-relations theory, objects are usually persons, parts of persons, or symbols of one of these.

Representation refers to the way the person has or possesses an object. Object representation is the mental representation of an object.

An external object is an actual person, place or thing that a person has invested with emotional energy.

An internal object is one person's representation of another, such as a reflection of the child's way of relating to the mother. A memory, idea, or fantasy about a person, place, or thing..(Some writers, like Melanie Klein, use the term "object" without always stating whether it refers to a person or an inner representation.

Self. An internal image. Conscious and unconscious mental representations of oneself.

Self-representation. A person's inner representation of himself or herself as experienced in relation to significant others.

Self-object. A loss of boundaries, where what is self and object get blurred and the distinction between self and external object is not clear. (This condition is called "confluence" in Gestalt therapy.)

Part object. This is an object that is part of a person, such as a hand or breast. The other is not recognised as a "whole object."

Whole object. Another person whom is recognised as having rights, feelings, needs, hopes, strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities like one's own, just as oneself has.

Object constancy. Maintaining a lasting relationship with a specific object, or rejecting any substitute for such an object. Example of the latter: rejecting mothering from anyone except one's own mother. Mahler: object constancy is "the capacity to recognise and tolerate loving and hostile feelings toward the same object; the capacity to keep feelings centred on a specific object; and the capacity to value an object for attributes other than its function of satisfying needs."

Splitting. This occurs when a person (especially a child) can't keep two contradictory thoughts or feelings in mind at the same time, and therefore keeps the conflicting feelings apart and focuses on just one of them.

Self-psychology. The big issue is the nature and kind of emotional investment in the self. Narcissism plays a central role in the thinking of self-psychology. That is, the person deals with objects as if they were part of the self, or in terms of the object performing an essential function for the self. Such a distorted relationship requires a different form of treatment from that of neurotics.

Objects can be represented as "good" or satisfying one's needs and desires, or "bad" and not satisfying one's needs and desires.

In short, object-relations is a way of conceptualising interpersonal relations and extending psychoanalytic thinking into the interpersonal realm, but with a vocabulary that sounds rather odd to those not verse in the theory. It looks for the basis of our ways of relating to others at an earlier stage of development than did Freud, who emphasised the "genital stage."

Object Relations is not so much a modality as a refinement of basic psycho dynamic and as such contributes to the practice of many psychotherapists.

Back to Types of Therapy

At a glance

types of therapy

What is good therapy?

Therapists explore the experiential narratives and existential philosophies that underpin their attitudes and approaches to therapy.



Contributions from writers, artists, philosophers and poets, exploring the questions that help us understand what it means to be human



Practitioners and Friends are invited to be part of the Good Therapy community... learn more about how you can be involved.



Professional and personal development, training workshops, and conferences for psychotherapists, counsellors and psychologists