Skip to main content
Select Source:

Object Relations Theory


Psychoanalytic object relations theories may be defined as those that place the internalization, structuralization and clinical reactivation (in the transference and counter-transference) of the earliest dyadic object relations at the center of their motivational (structural, clinical, and genetic and developmental) formulations.

Internalization of object relations refers to the concept that, in all interactions of the infant and child with the significant parental figures, what the infant internalizes is not an image or representation of the other ("the object"), but the relationship between the self and the other, in the form of a self image or self representation interacting with an object image or object representation. This internal structure replicates in the intrapsychic world both real and fantasized relationships with significant others.

Several major issues separate object relations theories, the most important of which is the extent to which the theory is perceived as harmonious with or in opposition to Freud's traditional drive theory: that is, whether object relations are seen as replacing drives as the motivational system for human behavior. From this perspective, Melanie Klein as well as Margaret Mahler and Edith Jacobson occupy one pole, in that they combine Freud's dual drive theory with an object relations theory approach. For Ronald Fairbairn and Harry S. Sullivan, on the other hand, object relations themselves replace Freud's drives as the major motivational system. Contemporary interpersonal psychoanalysis, as represented by Joanne R. Greenberg and Stephen Mitchellbased upon an integration of principally Fairbairnian and Sullivanian conceptsasserts the essential incompatibility between drive-based and object relations-based models of psychic motivational systems. Donald Winnicott, Hans Loewald, and Joseph Sandler (each for different reasons) maintain an intermediate posture; they perceive the affective frame of the infant-mother relationship as a crucial determinant in shaping the development of drives. While adhering to Freud's dual drive theory, Otto Kernberg considers drives supraordinate motivational systems, while affects are their constituent components.

A related controversy has to do with the origin and role of aggression as motivator of behavior. Those theoreticians who reject the idea of inborn drives (Sullivan), or equate libido with the search for object relations (Fairbairn), conceptualize aggression as secondary to the frustration of libidinal needs, particularly traumatic experiences in the early mother-infant dyad. Theoreticians who adhere to Freud's dual drive theory, in contrast, believe aggression is inborn and plays an important part in shaping early interactions: This group includes Klein in particular and to some extent Winnicott, and the ego psychology object relations theoreticians such as Kernberg.

Finally, contrast may be made between object relations theories and French approaches, both Lacanian and mainstream psychoanalysis. The latter has maintained close links with traditional psychoanalysis, including the British object relations theories, Insofar as Lacan conceptualizes the unconscious as a natural language and focuses on the cognitive aspects of unconscious development, he underemphasizes affecta dominant element of object relations theories. At the same time, however, in postulating a very early oedipal stucturalization of all infant-mother interactions, Lacan emphasizes archaic oedipal developments, which implicitly links his formulations with those of Klein. French mainstream analysis also focuses on archaic aspects of oedipal developments, but places a much more traditional emphasis on Freud's dual drive theory and on the affective nature of the early ego-id. As neither mainstream nor Lacanian psychoanalysis spells out specific structural consequences of dyadic internalized object relations, however, neither would fit the definition that frames the field of object relations theory as proposed in this essay.

All object relations theories focus heavily on the enactment of internalized object relations in the transference and on the analysis of counter-transference in the development of interpretive strategies. They are particularly concerned with severe psychopathologies, including those psychotic patients still approachable with psychoanalytic techniques, borderline conditions and severe narcissistic character pathology, and the perversions. Object relations theories explore primitive defensive operations and object relations both in cases of severe psychopathology and at points of severe regression with all patients.

The contemporary re-evaluation of Freud's dual drive theory that has occurred mostly in France is relevant to the relationship between object relations theory and drive theory. Perhaps particularly the work of Jean Laplanche and André Green has emphasized the central importance of unconscious destructive and self-destructive drive manifestations in the form of attacks on object relations, and the central role of unconscious erotization in the mother-infant relationship in libidinal development, all of which tends to link drive theory and object relations theory in intimate ways.

Another important development within psychoanalytic theory has been the growing emphasis on affects as primary motivators, and the centrality of the communicative functions of affects in early development, particularly the infant/mother relationship. This emphasis has linked affect theory and object relations theory quite closely, despite the persistent controversy between those who see affect, particularly peak affect states, as essential representatives of the drives, and those who stress the psychophysiological nature of the affective response, and attempt to replace drive theory with an affect theory.

The basic units (self representation, object representation) of internalized object relations thus include the constituent affective components of the drives. One might say that the affect of sexual excitement is the central affect of libido in the same way as the affect of primitive hatred constitutes the central affect of the death drive. The id is conceptualized in this model as the sum total of repressed, desired, and feared primitive object relations The gradual integration of successive layers of persecutory and idealized, prohibitive and demanding, internalized object relations forms part of the primitive superego, while internalized object relations activated in the service of defense consolidate as an integrated self structure within the ego, surrounded by integrated representations of significant others. In short, the Id or dynamic Unconscious, the Superego, and the Ego are constituted by different constellations of internalized object relations, so that the development of the drives and the development of the psychic apparatusthe tripartite structureoccur hand in hand.

Perhaps the most important practical implication of object relations theory is the conception of identification as a series of internalization processes ranging from earliest introjection to identification per se, to the development of complex identity formation. Each step includes the internalizing of both self and object representations and their affective interactions under the conditions of different developmental levels.

In the transference of healthier patients, with a well-consolidated ego identity, the diverse self representations are relatively stable in their coherent mutual linkage. This fosters the relatively consistent projection onto the analyst of the object representation aspect of the enacted object relationship. In contrast, patients with severe identity diffusion lack such linkage of self representations into an integrated self. They tend to alternate rapidly between projection of self and object representations in the transference, so that the analytic situation seems chaotic. Systematic interpretation of how the same internalized object relation is enacted again and again with rapid role reversals makes it possible to clarify the nature of the unconscious object relation, and the double splitting of (a) self representation from object representation and (b) idealized from persecutory object relations. This process promotes integration of the split representations which characterize the object relations of severe psychopathology.

Otto F. Kernberg

See also: Analytical psychology; Basic fault; Benign/malignant regression; Bouvet, Maurice Charles Marie Germain; Dead mother complex; Early interactions; Ego (ego psychology); Ego psychology; Eroticism, anal; False self; Feminism and psychoanalysis; Genital love; Great Britain; Object; Oedipus complex; Self (true/false); Subject's castration; Unconscious fantasy.


Fairbairn, W. Ronald D. (1954). An object-relations theory of the personality. New York: Basic Books.

Greenberg, Stephen, and Mitchell, Jay. (1983). Object relations in psychoanalytic theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kernberg, Otto F. (1992). Aggression in personality disorders and perversion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Krause, Rainer. (1998). Allgemeine psychoanalytische Krankheitslehre. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Sandler, Joseph, and Sandler, Anne-Marie. (1998). Internal objects revisited. London: Karnac Books.

Sullivan, Harry S. (1953). Interpersonal theory of psychiatry. New York: W. W. Norton.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Object Relations Theory." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . 24 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Object Relations Theory." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . (June 24, 2017).

"Object Relations Theory." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from

Object Relations Theory

Object Relations Theory Since its formulation by Sigmund Freud, psychoanalytic theory has developed into many distinct schools of thought. One of these is the so-called Object Relations School, which was originally associated with the names of (among others) W. R. D. Fairbairn and D. W. Winnicott, but also much influenced by the work of Melanie Klein. In essence, Object Relations Theory offers a much more social view of psychological development than does the earlier Freudian account, seeing individuals as formed in relation to, and seeking connection with, other individuals. Instead of Freud's notion of libidinal stages of child development, it emphasizes the gradual differentiation of the self through the formation of reflections of experiences of real people from earliest infancy, or in other words of internal ‘objects’. The term ‘object’ denotes the person or persons (or his or her inner representatives) with whom a subject is intensely involved emotionally. It is these initial experiences with other people, according to the theory, that structure and form later relationships.

A central aspect of Object Relations Theory is the primary attachment of infants to their mothers. Feminist theorists have been attracted to this emphasis on the centrality of the maternal, and have drawn on the theory to develop a causal account of gender difference. Gender differences, it is argued, originate in the infantile development process in which female and male infants experience different patterns of struggle to separate from the mother. For example, Nancy Chodorow (in The Reproduction of Mothering, 1978) describes how personality develops in terms of both innate drives and relations with other people, or ‘objects’.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Object Relations Theory." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 24 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Object Relations Theory." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (June 24, 2017).

"Object Relations Theory." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from