Object Relations Theory 101: All The World's A Stage

Today, we have a beginner's introduction to object relations theory.

Right from the start, let me acknowledge that I have difficulty writing about object relations theory in a simple, conversational style. For me, it is like conveying the experience of a warm sunny day while using the language of quantum field theory.

To try to save us all some hardship with this topic, I will use a metaphor. Granted this metaphor is limited. For a more technical and historical explanation of object relations theory, you can start with a nice review by Sam Vaknin, Ph.D. Scroll down the page a bit and start at "XV. Narcissism and Schizoid Disorders - Melanie Klein." For further information, you can also read Wikipedia's entry for object relations theory.

Imagine a large amphitheatre. On the stage is Robert. More accurately, Robert's ego is on the stage. Behind him, instead of scenery and curtains, is the real world where he interacts with other real people. In front of him, the seats are occupied by all of the people with whom he has had significant experiences in the past. These are not the actual persons but are his representations of them. For example, his first grade teacher actually may have cared deeply for him and been a good teacher. However, in Robert's experience, she was scary and hard to please. Therefore, his representation of her is frightening. This audience consists of the memories of his life.

To his left are the warm, loving people. It is from them that Robert gets self-soothing, guidance, support, etc. In the center are neutral figures. On the right is where the harsh, critical, angry and destructive persons sit.

To complicate things a bit more, the same person can have multiple representations. Robert's mother can be seated on the left based on the time when she calmed him after a nightmare. But she can also occupy a seat on the right. This would be an unintegrated memory of the time that she wrongly accused him of a theft and punished him unjustly.

Depending on what is happening between Robert and the real world, the audience can shift. Some people will move their seat to the other side, some stay where they are, some may even leave the theater.

In a reciprocal fashion, and this is important, how the audience is arranged in the seats influences the way that Robert interacts with the real world and stores new memories of his experience.

Sometimes the audience is polite and accepting. They don't interrupt Robert. They wait for him to address them or to recall them in memory. Consider this as a Zen moment. His object relations are in alignment with his experience of the world and criticism is suspended.

Other times, the audience can be intrusive. Out of the blue, a rotten tomato is thrown at Robert's head. A torrent of unexpectedly harsh criticisms of his performance interrupts his dealings with the real world. Or, perhaps, a gentle, soothing sense of acceptance and love sweeps over him as he reads a novel late at night.

On still other occasions, the audience may start arguing among themselves.

Now the members of the audience may not all be exactly human. Granted, the most advanced of them look completely human. These patrons are well known to Robert and he sees them as reliable and fairly predictable. He has known them through good times and bad. Robert knows these patrons well. He sees them as reliable and fairly predictable.

Some in the audience look only mostly human. Their features are somehow not quite fully developed. Robert only knows one side of them. This part of the crowd can be confusing and unpredictable to Robert.

Then we have gooey, blob-like creatures. They are the least advanced persons in attendance. These are the raw, primitive introjects. Some are scarier than Frankenstein. Others are purely and exquisitely pleasurable and intoxicating. Even the gratifying blobs can be dangerous, though. There is a threat that they can consume you in their gooeyness. (Think of the allure of an urge to regress back to being a coddled, dependent child in times of high conflict.)

In our metaphor, the more psychologically mature a person becomes, then the more that the audience will look fully human. It is likely that the psychologically mature person will not have multiple representations of significant persons. Instead, the mature person will have integrated the various experiences with, say, his mother into a coherent whole.

If Robert regresses or if a person is psychologically immature, then the audience begins to look more like the gooey blobs. There will be multiple representations of the same person, split off from each other. The blobs can unexpectedly shift positions depending on what is happening either in the real world or in the audience itself.

This should be adequate for our current purposes. There are many elements left out of this metaphor. For instance, I did not mention the drives interacting with the audience. Nor did I get into how object relations mesh with the various structures of the mind, e.g., the superego or the id. (Hints: gooey blobs are raw expressions of the drives in the id, but some might also be in the superego, and usually they are part object (as opposed to whole object) representations. Well-formed humans are in the superego or ego ideal. The left side is fueled by the libido and the right side is powered by the aggressive drive. Those in the middle either are decathected or are unrelated to the current experience with the world.) As I said, this stuff gets complicated fast. For now, we'll leave this metaphor as it stands.

For a quick visual reference, I made a pictorial representation of this metaphor:

In the next post, I will move on to anaclitic depressions.

  • maureen stewart-mooney

    Very interesting illustration of object relations theory.

  • Robert

    What a crock, none of this is supported by neuroscience or genetics (related to mental disorders). Readers beware, this is pseudoscientific voodoo from the Victorian age. It shouldn't be online.

    Dr. Dombeck's Note: Several comments: 1) Object Relations (OR) was not Freud, but rather the creation of later analysts who were breaking away from Freud into new territory. It's within the Freudian tradition, but it is not a model from Freud himself. 2) You dismiss OR as "peudoscience" by contrasting it to "real" sciences (neuroscience, genetics) which are grounded in biology. However, science does not equal biology. Science is a method which can be applied to most any realm of exploration which can be experimented upon. Psychology is a legitimate science. I'm not saying that OR is scientific in its origins - it's not - but I am saying that your dismissal seems overly broad. 3) Why not put it online? Science cannot progress if the only things we are allowed to talk about are already demonstrated. We mark this sort of thing as lacking in empirical support, but that does not mean that it has no value. Quite the contrary, any clinician who has ever studied OR even a little bit will tell you it contains useful riches.

  • r hernandez

    i'm a graduate student in clinical psychology and i find the site supplements my learning in a very useful way.

  • joe

    Sad when others have something to say that would be dismissive of a branch of psychotherapy with such wild claims! I'm also a graduate student, and maybe one day I'll also find holes in application or efficacy of OR, but in the meanwhile I have produced some great studies of my own just trying to grasp the vicissitudes in human behavior.

    I work in autism and I don't think there is a single person I've heard speak on the matter with whatever studies or theories they present and really know the TRUTH. That is to say, to make progress, implementation of OR with other psychotherapeutic instruments is interesting. My knowledge is still growing, and I look forward to determining if OR has merit. Also, it was developed fully years after anachists attempted to dismantle psychotherapy as an effective tool in the counseling setting.

  • Anonymous-1

    I am a student in the Diamond Approach and we are now getting into Object Relations theory. I think this description of how it works is pretty awesome and am going to reread a few times.... It was evident to me before I heard of object relations theory and now that it is being described, it rings true.

  • Jeremy C. Binni, M.A., CADC, CAC, LCDC III

    There is plenty of neuroscience to support Object Relations Theory AND the Freudian mental apparatus. You have just been flooded with the American managed care-based ideologies. Scientific in psychology means....How do you feel today?...."7". Well, it's quantified now so it's scientific right?

  • Margot Aspen

    I am a mental health counselor and have always worked in residential substance abuse treatment settings. Anger is a primary trigger for relapse, and as such, it is important to teach clients as much as possible about their anger and the roots of same. Object Relations fits perfectly into my psychoeducation groups as well as into my case conceptualizations for individual counseling. It is a particularly useful tool since I am psychodynamic philosophically. The use of OR allows for relatively quick assessment and treatment planning as well as for doing relatively brief therapy for those with behavioral systems best described (at least for now) as personality disorders.

  • Dr. Z

    Thank you for posting such an elegant metaphor for such a complex theory. Neuroscience has flooded the field of psychology and there is hard empirical data supporting the role attachments (object relations) play in our brain development and/or dysfunction.