Object Relations Theory

We all carry within us a model of the world that is based upon all of the relationships we have ever had.  The people we loved in our early years, the kind of relationships we were able to develop with them, this all remains as a kind of guidance system that we are constantly leaning upon in the present.  But we may not know it.

For many of us these internal guiding principles remain obscure

  • Yet, according to object relations theory, they influence the way we behave when we meet and work with people 
  • They influence the way we fall in love and the shape of our love relationships 
  • They will influence and play a significant part in how we will go on to love and relate to our children

There is something tragic about a person who continually falls in love and then rejects their lover in a way that replicates the way they were loved and abandoned in their own family, perhaps by their mother and father. 

I knew that my love affairs and relationships always tended to work in the same way. I could see they all developed the same kind of problems. But I just couldn’t work out how to change things on my own.

anonymous client

Our internal object relations influence us to repeat the same things

It’s a bit like being Bill Murray, stuck in your own version of Groundhog Day.

  • If we fail to grasp the way our internal objects and their particular dynamics influence us we may be doomed to live unsatisfying lives.

Object relations theory is a theory that considers the depths of us

The theory goes beyond the surface of the choices we make, beyond our behavioural choices and biases, and looks at the depths of our psyche to help us better understand the reason we feel the way we do about the people we meet.

Psychotherapists who understand and think about the way these internal objects influence us can help us to gain a greater understanding of ourselves.  When we have this kind of information it may be possible for us to avoid repeating old mistakes and to give us a chance to live more satisfying and creative lives.

How object relations theory developed

Object relations theory developed out of and as a response to developments within psychoanalytic theory.  Freud was originally more interested in the body, in our biological nature.  Freud focussed upon understanding a set of drives that were the origin of mental activity.  

For Freud internal drives and instincts were more important and significant than our relationship with people and the external world.  In later work Freud did focus more upon these questions but it was hard to see how they could fit within his earlier drive theory.

Later theorists, while still following Freud’s ideas, replaced the drive theory model with a framework in which our relationships with other people are seen as constituting the fundamental building blocks of our mental life.

Within the psychoanalytic community these two strands, drive theory and object relations theory have provided the main orienting point for understanding people.

One of the reasons that these things are of such interest to psychodynamic therapists is to be found in the transference.  Transference is the way we repeat an old relationship when we have a new one.  It refers to the kinds of ideas and feelings we project onto people we become involved with without realising we are doing so.

When we don’t consider our own object relations

The less we know about our own tendency and capacity to relate to others in this way, the more we are likely to be influenced and governed by it.  It has the potential to happen with all of our relationships and that includes our relationship with our psychotherapist.

Object relations theory acknowledges that we live simultaneously in an internal and an external world. 

When we speak of object relations theory, we are talking of an approach that is concerned with exploring our individual relationships with both real external people and our internal images and residues of our previous relationships.

A psychotherapist who is trained in understanding these things is able to help you to identify that the feelings you develop towards the therapist may be less to do with the therapist and more to do with an older internal object relationship.

A tradition of psychotherapy that goes back a 100 years

Psychotherapy (Anna O case) made a particular leap when it started to think that the people about whom clients speak, do not necessarily correspond in a straightforward fashion with the people of the external world. 

Object relations theory is partly based on the understanding that the people we speak about in the external world are in fact heavily influenced and made up from internal representations of people that we carry and hold within us.  The people of our past.

We may not be aware of how this operates for us.  But it is this existence of the mental representation of others, which influences our responses to the people we interact with.

Our internal object relations constitute a residue of all kinds of relationships we have had.  Importantly, this includes all of the feelings that we have had about those people.  Our wishes, desires, happiness and unhappiness.  Our envy, our aggression, all of these create a kind of living dynamic strata of psychic life within us.

Because we have all had different experiences, we all carry a different and personal set of object relations.  Some of us will be more prone to feel anxious in the presence of a new person, perhaps a boss, an authority figure, because our internal world is more influenced by object relations that have suffered and struggled to deal with these things in our early life.

It is not uncommon for someone to develop a self-destructive attitude to themselves, their work and their relationships, which is all based upon the weaknesses of their internal object relations world.

Contact Me

I have twenty years of experience of working with people, many of whom may not have found a way to stop repeating old destructive ways of living and relating to others.

Giving yourself the chance to speak in a confidential setting may prove helpful, it may be the beginning of starting to work out more about what works to influence and possible undermine your relationships with other people.

It may give you the chance to develop new and important insights into yourself.  This in turn may help you to develop greater confidence and emotional stability.

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.