I. Overview of Object Relations Theory
Many personality theorists have accepted some of Freud's basic assumptions while
rejecting others. One approach to extending psychoanalytic theory has been the
object relations theories of Melanie Klein and others. Unlike Jung and Adler,
who came to reject Freud's ideas, Klein tried to validate Freud's theories.
Klein extended Freud's developmental stages downward to the first 4 to 6 months
II. Biography of Melanie Klein
Melanie Klein was born in Vienna in 1892, the youngest of four children. She
had neither a Ph.D. nor an M.D. degree but became an analyst by being psychoanalyzed.
As an analyst, she specialized in working with young children. In 1927, she
to London where she practiced until her death in 1960.
III. Introduction to Object Relations Theory
Object relations theory differs from Freudian theory in at least three ways:
(1) it places more emphasis on interpersonal relationships, (2) it stresses
the infant's relationship with the mother rather than the father, and (3) it
suggests that people are motivated primarily for human contact rather than for
sexual pleasure. The
term object in object relations theory refers to any person or part of a person
that infants introject, or take into their psychic structure and then later
project onto other people.
IV. Psychic Life of the Infant
Klein believed that infants begin life with an inherited predisposition to reduce
the anxiety that they experience as a consequence of the clash between the life
instinct and the death instinct.
Klein assumed that very young infants possess an active, unconscious fantasy
life. Their most basic fantasies are images of the "good" breast and
the "bad" breast.
Klein agreed with Freud that drives have an object, but she was more likely
to emphasize the child's relationship with these objects (parents' face, hands,
breast, penis, etc.), which she saw as having a life of their own within the
child's fantasy world.
In their attempts to reduce the conflict produced by good and bad images, infants
organize their experience into positions, or ways of dealing with both internal
and external objects.
A. Paranoid-Schizoid Position
The struggles that infants experience with the good breast and the bad breast
lead to two separate and opposing feelings: a desire to harbor the breast and
a desire to bite or destroy it. To tolerate these two feelings, the ego splits
itself by retaining parts of its life and death instincts while projecting other
parts onto the breast. It then has a relationship with the ideal breast and
the persecutory breast. To control this situation, infants adopt the paranoid-schizoid
position, which is a tendency to see the world as having both destructive and
B. Depressive Position
By depressive position, Klein meant the anxiety that infants experience around
6 months of age over losing their mother and yet, at the same time, wanting
to destroy her. The depressive position is resolved when infants fantasize that
they have made up for their previous transgressions against their mother and
also realize that their mother will not abandon them.
VI. Psychic Defense Mechanisms
According to Klein, children adopt various psychic defense mechanisms to protect
their ego against anxiety aroused by their own destructive fantasies.
Klein defined introjection as the fantasy of taking into one's own body the
images that one has of an external object, especially the mother's breast. Infants
usually introject good objects as a protection against anxiety, but they also
introject bad objects in order to gain control of them.
The fantasy that one's own feelings and impulses reside within another person
is called projection. Children project both good and bad images, especially
Infants tolerate good and bad aspects of themselves and of external objects
by splitting, or mentally keeping apart, incompatible images. Splitting can
be beneficial to both children and adults, because it allows them to like themselves
while still recognizing some unlikable qualities.
D. Projective Identification
Projective identification is the psychic defense mechanism whereby infants split
off unacceptable parts of themselves, project them onto another object, and
finally introject them in an altered form.
After introjecting external objects, infants organize them into a psychologically
meaningful framework, a process that Klein called internalization.
Internalizations are aided by the early ego's ability to feel anxiety, to use
defense mechanisms, and to form object relations in both fantasy and reality.
However, a unified ego emerges only after first splitting itself into two parts:
those that deal with the life instinct and those that relate to the death instinct.
Klein believed that the superego emerged much earlier than Freud had held. To
her, the superego preceded rather than followed the Oedipus complex. Klein also
saw the superego as being quite harsh and cruel.
C. Oedipus Complex
Klein believed that the Oedipus complex begins during the first few months of
life, then reaches its zenith during the genital stage, at about 3 or 4 years
of age, or the same time that Freud had suggested it began. Klein also held
that much of the Oedipus complex is based on children's fear that their parents
will seek revenge against them for their fantasy of emptying the parent's body.
For healthy development during the Oedipal years, children should retain positive
feelings for each parent. According to Klein, the little boy adopts a "feminine"
position very early in life and has no fear of being castrated as punishment
for his sexual feelings for his mother. Later, he projects his destructive drive
onto his father, whom he fears will bite or castrate him. The male Oedipus complex
is resolved when the boy establishes good relations with both parents. The little
girl also adopts a "feminine" position toward both parents quite early
in life. She has a positive feeling for both her mother's breast and her father's
penis, which she believes will feed her with babies. Sometimes the girl develops
hostility toward her mother, whom she fears will retaliate against her and rob
her of her babies, but in most cases, the female Oedipus complex is resolved
without any jealousy toward the mother.
VIII. Later Views on Object Relations
A number of other theorists have expanded and altered Klein's theory of object
relations. Notable among them are Margaret Mahler, Otto Kernberg, Heinz Kohut,
and John Bowlby.
A. Margaret Mahler's View
Mahler, a native of Hungary who practiced psychoanalysis in both Vienna and
New York, developed her theory of object relations from careful observations
of infants as they bonded with their mothers during their first 3 years of life.
In their progress toward achieving a sense of identity, children pass through
a series of three major developmental stages. First is normal autism, which
covers the first 3 to 4 weeks of life, a time when infants satisfy their needs
within the all-powerful protective orbit of their mother's care. Second is normal
symbiosis, when infants behave as if they and their mother were an omnipotent,
symbiotic unit. Third is separation-individuation, from about 4 months until
about 3 years, a time when children are becoming psychologically separated from
their mothers and achieving individuation, or a sense of personal identity.
B. Heinz Kohut's View
Kohut was a native of Vienna who spent most of his professional life in the
United States. More than any of the other object relations theorists, Kohut
emphasized the development of the self. In caring for their physical and psychological
needs, adults treat infants as if they had a sense of self. The parents' behaviors
and attitudes eventually help children form a sense of self that gives unity
and consistency to
C. Otto Kernberg's View
Kernberg, a native of Vienna who has spent most of his professional career in
the United States, believes that the key to understanding personality is the
mother-child relationship. Children who experience a healthy relationship with
their mother develop an integrated ego, a punitive superego, a stable self-concept,
and satisfying interpersonal relations. In contrast, children who have poor
relations with their mother will have difficulty integrating their ego and may
suffer from some form of psychopathology during adulthood.
D. John Bowlby's Attachment Theory
Bowlby, a native of England, received training in child psychiatry from Melanie
Klein. By studying human and other primate infants, Bowlby observed three stages
of separation anxiety: (1) protest, (2) apathy and despair, and (3) emotional
detachment from people, including the primary caregiver. Children who reach
the third stage lack warmth and emotion in their later relationships.
The goal of Kleinian therapy was to reduce depressive anxieties and persecutory
fears and to lessen the harshness of internalized objects. To do this, Klein
encouraged patients to re-experience early fantasies and pointed out the differences
between conscious and unconscious wishes.
X. Related Research
Some research on attachment theory has found that children with secure attachment
have both better attention and better memory than do children with insecure
attachment. Other research suggests that securely attached young children grow
up to become adolescents who feel comfortable in friendship groups that allow
new members to easily become part of those groups. Still other studies have
8- and 9-year-old children who were securely attached during infancy produced
family drawings that reflect that security.
XI. Critique of Object Relations Theory
Object relations theory shares with Freudian theory an inability to be either
falsified or verified through empirical research. Nevertheless, some clinicians
regard the theory as being a useful guide to action and as possessing substantial
internal consistency. However, the theory must be rated low on parsimony and
also low on
its ability to organize knowledge and to generate research.
XII. Concept of Humanity
Object relations theorists see personality as being a product of the early
mother-child relationship, and thus they stress determinism over free choice.
The powerful influence of early childhood also gives these theories a low rating
on uniqueness, a very high rating on social influences, and high ratings on
causality and unconscious forces. Klein and other object relations theorists
on optimism versus pessimism.