What is Object Relations?

Written by Paul Shirley MSW

I'll try to answer your question....... but I believe that object relations theory gets complicated.

Object relations is a way of looking at psychology and individual development. It grew out of Freud's ideas that problems during critically important stages of development can turn into problematic themes that can follow someone through life. There is the "oral personality" that is dependent and seeking attention, supposedly as a result of problems that took place during the overall time when the, child was breastfeeding. And then there is the "anal personality," who can't stand to let go of control and who even keeps things like a pack rat, supposedly as a result of problems that took place during the overall time when toilet training was going on and he refused to let go of his poo-poo.

Object relations theorists took that idea of Freud's a step further. Its theorists developed the idea that everyone develops inner images, inner pictures, of early experiences, and especially of one's caregivers. One of the first and most important of these inner pictures is of one's mother or maternal caregiver. She is a "good" image, because she provided the food, warmth, comfort, protection, and so forth. However, she is also "bad" because there are times when she allows baby to suffer hunger or other discomfort, and she doesn't "fix" it as soon as baby thinks she should. Thus, object relations theorists believe that there is a dual image of "Good Mother, Bad Mother" inside us all. That is a confusing dilemma that we all have to resolve in our own thinking. Since we came from our Mothers, and are consequently so much like her, that means that we also have to figure out if WE are good or bad. This gets complicated by the possibility that - in infant logic - maybe Mommy ignored us because WE are bad.

A theorist named Melanie Klein put forward the idea that this dilemma reaches its peak at around age six months. Hopefully, a child will find a means to come to the realization that things are just the way they are, and that Good Mommy and Bad Mommy are really the same person, and that she's OK but just not perfect. Then, we figure out the same things about ourselves - we are both good and bad, and we're really pretty much OK but just not perfect. However, if some things comes along to cause problems during this time when we are trying to work that dilemma out inside our tiny heads, then we will carry that dilemma on with us throughout the rest of our lives, in the form of narcissism. So, according to Object Relations theorists, narcissism is caused by our inability to ever get a good clear picture of ourselves as good, solid, OK type people.

Narcissistic people try to find ways to compensate for that lack. They try to find goodness in themselves through owning things, controlling people, managing situations, perhaps through fantasizing that they are supermen and superwomen. In serious cases, it becomes a matter of adding to that fantasy on a daily basis. That is what Sam and others call the "False Self." Somebody on the list calls it the "Straw Man."

Actually, I can't quite seem to escape the symbolism of the Tower of Babel in the Bible (some people seem to hate it when I bring this symbolism up - but there are good pictures in there that clearly describe some obscure psychological processes), where mankind is trying to build a tower so great that it will reach up to heaven. To me, that is a perfect symbol of the hopeless task which the narcissistic individual is trying to accomplish. After all, look at what happened in the story - the result was that people lost their ability to communicate with one another. Just go and read the list to see how often that comes up between Ns and spouses. To me, every N is trying to build a Tower of Babel. The name "Babel," implies the word and the concept "babble," and that is just what a narcissist in full bloom who have never looked within will do - he will babble on forever. Again - just read the list, and there it is - "what does an N MEAN, when he SAYS "X,Y, and Z?" The N is babbling - meaning he is saying things that cannot be understood.

I hope that clears up for you what Object Relations theory is all about. Like I said, I don't know much about the theory, but I know basically what it is - and what I just told you is just about everything I know about it. To me, the importance of it is in the application of it - we must find a way to establish within ourselves that we are OK, even though we are not perfect. The main thing, though, is finding those feelings inside us that we are somehow basically "not OK." That can be a hard job by itself.

I'm really glad to see you back.