Object relations theory in psychoanalytic psychology is the process of developing a psyche in relation to others in the childhood environment. It designates theories or aspects of theories that are concerned with the exploration of relationships between real and external people as well as internal images and the relations found in them. While object relations theory is based on psychodynamic theory , it modified it so that the role of biological drives in the formation of adult personality received less emphasis.
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For example, an adult who experienced neglect or abuse in infancy would expect similar behavior from others who remind them of the neglectful or abusive parent from their past. These images of people and events turn into objects in the unconscious that the "self" carries into adulthood, and they are used by the unconscious to predict people's behavior in their social relationships and interactions. The first "object" in someone is usually an internalized image of one's mother. Internal objects are formed by the patterns in one's experience of being taken care of as a baby, which may or may not be accurate representations of the actual, external caretakers.
Objects are usually internalized images of one's mother , father , or primary caregiver, although they could also consist of parts of a person such as an infant relating to the breast or things in one's inner world one's internalized image of others.
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This corresponds with the ability to tolerate ambiguity, to see that both the "good" and the "bad" breast are a part of the same mother figure. The initial line of thought emerged in with Ferenczi and, early in the s, Sullivan , coiner of the term "interpersonal".
Ronald Fairbairn in independently formulated his theory of object relations. The term has been used in many different contexts, which led to different connotations and denotations. Klein felt that the psychodynamic battleground that Freud proposed occurs very early in life, during infancy. Furthermore, its origins are different from those that Freud proposed. The interactions between infant and mother are so deep and intense that they form the focus of the infant's structure of drives.
Some of these interactions provoke anger and frustration; others provoke strong emotions of dependence as the child begins to recognize the mother is more than a breast from which to feed. These reactions threaten to overwhelm the individuality of the infant.
Object relations theory
The way in which the infant resolves the conflict, Klein believed, is reflected in the adult's personality. Freud originally identified people in a subject's environment with the term "object" to identify people as the object of drives. Fairbairn took a radical departure from Freud by positing that humans were not seeking satisfaction of the drive, but actually seek the satisfaction that comes in being in relation to real others.
Klein and Fairbairn were working along similar lines, but unlike Fairbairn, Klein always held that she was not departing from Freudian theory, but simply elaborating early developmental phenomena consistent with Freudian theory. Within the London psychoanalytic community, a conflict of loyalties took place between Klein and object relations theory sometimes referred to as "id psychology" ,  and Anna Freud and ego psychology. In America, Anna Freud heavily influenced American psychoanalysis in the s, s, and s.
In London, those who refused to choose sides were termed the "middle school," whose members included Michael Balint and D. A certain division developed in England between the school of Anna Freud and that of Melanie Klein,   which later influenced psychoanalytic politics worldwide.
Freud garnered an American allegiance. Fairbairn revised much of Freud's model of the mind. He identified how people who were abused as children internalize that experience. Fairbairn's "moral defense" is the tendency seen in survivors of abuse to take all the bad upon themselves, each believing he is morally bad so his caretaker object can be regarded as good.
This is a use of splitting as a defense to maintain an attachment relationship in an unsafe world.
Fairbairn introduced a four-year-old girl with a broken arm to a doctor friend of his. He told the little girl that they were going to find her a new mommy. If she accepted her mother was bad, then she would be bereft and alone in the world, an intolerable state. She used the Moral Defense to make herself bad, but preserve her mother's goodness. Klein termed the psychological aspect of instinct unconscious phantasy deliberately spelled with 'ph' to distinguish it from the word 'fantasy'.
Phantasy is a given of psychic life which moves outward towards the world.
These image-potentials are given a priority with the drives and eventually allow the development of more complex states of mental life. Unconscious phantasy in the infant's emerging mental life is modified by the environment as the infant has contact with reality.
From the moment the infant starts interacting with the outer world, he is engaged in testing his phantasies in a reality setting. I want to suggest that the origin of thought lies in this process of testing phantasy against reality; that is, that thought is not only contrasted with phantasy, but based on it and derived from it.
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The role of unconscious phantasy is essential in the development of a capacity for thinking. In Bion's terms, the phantasy image is a preconception that will not be a thought until experience combines with a realization in the world of experience. The preconception and realization combine to take form as a concept that can be thought. The instinctual rooting is the preconception. The provision of the nipple provides the realization in the world of experience, and through time, with repeated experience, the preconception and realization combined to create the concept.
Mental capacity builds upon previous experience as the environment and infant interact. The first bodily experiences begin to build up the first memories, and external realities are progressively woven into the texture of phantasy. And these plastic images and dramatic representations of phantasy are progressively elaborated along with articulated perceptions of the external world. With adequate care, the infant is able to tolerate increasing awareness of experience which is underlain by unconscious phantasy and leads to attainment of consecutive developmental achievements, "the positions" in Kleinian theory.
What is OBJECT RELATIONS THEORY? What does OBJECT RELATIONS THEORY mean?
Introjection of the good object is also used by the ego as a defense against anxiety. The processes of splitting off parts of the self and projecting them into objects are thus of vital importance for normal development as well as for abnormal object-relation. The effect of introjection on object relations is equally important.
It comes to form a focal point in the ego and makes for cohesiveness of the ego. Klein imagined this function as a defense which contributes to the normal development of the infant, including ego structure and the development of object relations.
The introjection of the good breast provides a location where one can hide from persecution, an early step in developing a capacity to self-soothe. Ogden  identifies four functions that projective identification may serve. As in the traditional Kleinian model, it serves as a defense. Projective identification serves as a mode of communication.
The positions of Kleinian theory, underlain by unconscious phantasy, are stages in the normal development of ego and object relationships, each with its own characteristic defenses and organizational structure. The paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions occur in the pre-oedipal, oral phase of development. In contrast to Fairbairn and later Guntrip,  Klein believed that both good and bad objects are introjected by the infant, the internalization of good objects being essential to the development of healthy ego function.
Object Relations Theory and the Mom Factor
The depressive position occurs during the second quarter of the first year. The paranoid-schizoid position is characterized by part object relationships.
Part objects are a function of splitting, which takes place in phantasy. At this developmental stage, experience can only be perceived as all good or all bad. As part objects, it is the function that is identified by the experiencing self, rather than whole and autonomous others.
The hungry infant desires the good breast who feeds it. Should that breast appear, it is the good breast. If the breast does not appear, the hungry and now frustrated infant, in its distress, has destructive phantasies dominated by oral aggression towards the bad, hallucinated breast.
Klein notes that in splitting the object, the ego is also split. The anxieties of the paranoid schizoid position are of a persecutory nature, fear of the ego's annihilation.
Projection is an attempt to eject the bad in order to control through omnipotent mastery. Splitting is never fully effective, according to Klein, as the ego tends towards integration. Klein saw the depressive position as an important developmental milestone that continues to mature throughout the life span. The splitting and part object relations that characterize the earlier phase are succeeded by the capacity to perceive that the other who frustrates is also the one who gratifies.
Schizoid defenses are still in evidence, but feelings of guilt, grief, and the desire for reparation gain dominance in the developing mind. In the depressive position, the infant is able to experience others as whole, which radically alters object relationships from the earlier phase.
It is only in the depressive position that polar qualities can be seen as different aspects of the same object. In a development which Grotstein terms the "primal split",  : 39 the infant becomes aware of separateness from the mother.
Object relations theory explained
This awareness allows guilt to arise in response to the infant's previous aggressive phantasies when bad was split from good. With the awareness of the primal split, a space is created in which the symbol, the symbolized, and the experiencing subject coexist. History, subjectivity, interiority, and empathy all become possible. The anxieties characteristic of the depressive position shift from a fear of being destroyed to a fear of destroying others.
In fact or phantasy, one now realizes the capacity to harm or drive away a person who one ambivalently loves. The defenses characteristic of the depressive position include the manic defenses, repression and reparation. The manic defenses are the same defenses evidenced in the paranoid-schizoid position, but now mobilized to protect the mind from depressive anxiety.
As the depressive position brings about an increasing integration in the ego, earlier defenses change in character, becoming less intense and allowing for in increased awareness of psychic reality. In working through depressive anxiety, projections are withdrawn, allowing the other more autonomy, reality, and a separate existence.
Unconscious guilt for destructive phantasies arises in response to the continuing love and attention provided by caretakers.
These feelings of guilt and distress now enter as a new element into the emotion of love. They become an inherent part of love, and influence it profoundly both in quality and quantity. From this developmental milestone come a capacity for sympathy, responsibility to and concern for others, and an ability to identify with the subjective experience of people one cares about.
Omnipotence is lessened, which corresponds to a decrease in guilt and the fear of loss. When all goes well, the developing child is able to comprehend that external others are autonomous people with their own needs and subjectivity. Previously, extended absences of the object the good breast, the mother was experienced as persecutory, and, according to the theory of unconscious phantasy , the persecuted infant phantisizes destruction of the bad object. The good object who then arrives is not the object which did not arrive.
Likewise, the infant who destroyed the bad object is not the infant who loves the good object. In phantasy, the good internal mother can be psychically destroyed by the aggressive impulses. It is crucial that the real parental figures are around to demonstrate the continuity of their love.