Object, Change of/Choice of

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The expressions change of object or choice of object refer to the notion of a love-object. The theme of a change of object refers back to the earliest sources of object relations. In his "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905d) Sigmund Freud described object-choice as being "diphasic, that is, it occurs in two waves" (p. 200). The first wave occurs in the oedipal period and the second at puberty, when the definitive form that sexual life will take is determined. The sexual instinct that until then had been essentially autoerotic discovers the sexual object. The adolescent can choose a new object only after renouncing the objects of his or her childhood: "The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it" (p. 222). Psychoanalytic authors have concurred in thinking that in both sexes, the primary object is the mother.

While, for Freud, the oedipal stage was lived out between two and five years of age, some post-Freudian authors consider an earlier Oedipus complex. Melanie Klein described a fantasy of both parents combined that is present very early in the infant's psychic life. André Green also noted, in Les Chaînes d'Éros (1997; The chains of Eros), that the father exists in the mother's mind; she is the guardian of the father's place, of the paternal function"its metaphor," in the words of Jacques Lacan. Denise Braunschweig and Michel Fain also introduced the father at an early stage, describing "censoring the lover in her" as a constituent element in the infant's development. The introduction of the father into the primary bond with the infant very early on allows for early triangulation, the basis for the introduction of a third party into the relationship. But it is certain that from the outset, the mother's relationship with her baby, whether a girl or a boy, entails a fantasmatic and interactive specificity owing to sexual difference: homosexual in the one case, heterosexual in the other. The fate of the primary object differs according to sex. The boy will return to it by displacement at the time of oedipal object-choice, while the girl must renounce it to proceed to a change of object.

This evolution is crucial in the course of development. For the girl, this is time when she libidinally invests her father and turns away from the maternal object. For the boy, this movement appears to be simpler. At puberty, under the influence of the superego, he turns away from the mother and can invest other objects. According to Freud, from the time of the phallic stage the girl develops an intense hatred for the mother (reflecting an ambivalent feeling of love-hate), which will foster a change in her object-choice. This explains the emergence of penis envy, which causes the girl to detach herself from her mother and take refuge in the oedipal situation. For her, Freud posited that object-change is of three orders: a change of love-object, a change of erotogenic zone (the clitoris is replaced by the vagina), and a change from an active to a passive position. During the preoedipal period, the little girl is both active and aggressive toward her mother, of whom she would like to have exclusive possession, and she feels her father to be a rival. At the time of the Oedipus complex, the girl turns from the mother toward the father, initially in a manner that is active, possessive, and sadistic. Love is directed toward the father and hatred toward the mother (through the castration complex). Catherine Parat theorized that these active sadistic impulses produce a masochistic shift in normal cases, which is accepted by the ego, and that this movement colors the development of femininity in a particular way. The taking up of the feminine, masochistic position entails a series of identifications with the mother, although without complete cessation of a degree of identification with the father. During and by means of the movement of object-change, the girl no longer lays claim to the penis; she has just traversed the pathway that leads from the desire to take the father's penis away from him, to the desire to receive a child from him. By means of feelings of tenderness and non-conflictual identifications with the mother, the girl can then (and this is an essential moment in her history) develop feelings of oedipal love for her father (and thus for men in general), an object different from herself. Through cathexis of her real gender, she has acquired the possibility of realizing her love in complementarity with the other. Heterosexuality is thus acquired, and the genital mode attained.

The integration of bisexuality is a fundamental element in heterosexual life. Feminine bisexuality causes some women to remain fixated on the mother, to make a homosexual object-choice, or to display alternating masculinity and femininity. Freud believed that in normal loving behavior, the currents of tenderness and sensuality come together. Tenderness is the older of these two currents. It comes from the first years of childhood and corresponds to the primary infantile object-choice. Then, with the advent of puberty, the powerful "sensual" current is added and will run up against the barrier of incest. This is when the tendency to find another, outside object with which to lead a real sexual life is manifested. Infantile object-choice paves the way for object-choice at puberty. In "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c) Freud proposed that there are two fundamental types in the choice of the love-object: narcissistic object-choice and anaclitic object-choice. They are not necessarily opposed to one another, Freud thought, but may be subject to alternation or combination in each of us. In the first case, the choice of love-object relates to the subject himself; in the second case, anaclitic object-choice, the love-object is chosen based on the model of the parent figures. These two currents are present and complementary from the oedipal period.

Freud's writings on female sexuality have inspired heated controversies, and the feminine is a point on which he faltered. If the Oedipus complex is characteristic of both sexes, according to his theory a "sexual monism" should exist until puberty in both sexes, the model of which would be the masculine one. The difficulty in Freud's work arises from anticipating a symmetry between what happens in boys and what happens in girls. Freud himself repeatedly underscored his uncertainty and the insufficient, trial-and-error nature of his inquiries into this "dark continent," as he called it, thus acknowledging the incompleteness of his explorations.

MaÏtÉ Klahr and Claudie Millot

See also: Object.


Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine, Luquet Parat, Catherine J., Grunberger, Béla, et al. (1964). Female sexuality: New psychoanalytic views. London: Virago.

Freud, Sigmund (1905c). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1914d). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

Green, André. (2000). The chains of Eros: The sexual in psychoanalysis (Luke Thurston, Trans.). London: Rebus. (Original work published 1997)

Parat, Catherine. (1964). Le changement d'objet. In L'Affect partagé (p. 36-47). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.