Victor Daniels' Website in

The Psychology Department at

Sonoma State University
Object Relations




This school of psychology includes

  • Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy
  • W.R.D. Fairbairn
  • Henry Guntrip
  • Edith Jacobson
  • Heinz Kohut
  • Otto Kernberg
  • Melanie Klein
  • Margaret Mahler
  • D.W. Winnicott



OVERVIEW. Object relations theory is an offshoot of psychoanalytic theory that emphasizes interpersonal relations, primarily in the family and especially between mother and child. "Object" actually means person (Martin Buber, where are you now that we need you?), and especially the significant person that is the object or target of another's feelings or intentions. "Relations" refers to interpersonal relatios and suggests the residues of past relationships that affect a person in the present. Object relations theorists are interested in inner images of the self and other and how they manifest themselves in interpersonal situations. Kohut's "self psychology" is an offshoot of object relations.



Object. An object is that to which a subject relates. Michael St. Clair writes, "For example, I love my children, I fear snakes, I am angry with my neighbor." Drives like those for sex, hunger, and affection have objects. In object-relations theory, objects are usually persons, parts of persons, or symbols of one of these.

Representation refers to the way the person has or possesses an object. Object representation is the mental representation of an object.

An external object is an actual person, place or thing that a person has invested with emotional energy.

An internal object is one person's representation of another, such as a reflection of the child's way of relating to the mother. It is a memory, idea, or fantasy about a person, place, or thing..(Some writers, like Melanie Klein, use the term "object" without always stating whether it refers to a person or an inner representation.)

Self. An internal image. Conscious and unconscious mental representations of oneself.

Self-representation. A person's inner representation of himself or herself as experienced in relation to significant others.

Self-object. A loss of boundaries, where what is self and object are blurred and the distinction between self and external object is not clear. (This condition is called "confluence" in Gestalt Therapy.)

Part object. This is an object that is part of a person, such as a hand or breast. The other is not recognized as a "whole object."

Whole object. Another person who is recognized as having rights, feelings, needs, hopes, strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities just like one's own.

Object constancy. Maintaining a lasting relationship with a specific object, or rejecting any substitute for such an object. Example of the latter: rejecting mothering from anyone except one's own mother. Mahler: object constancy is "the capacity to recognize and tolerate loving and hostile feelings toward the same object; the capacity to keep feelings centered on a specific object; and the capacity to value an object for attributes other than its function of satisfying needs."

Splitting. This occurs when a person (especially a child) can't keep two contradictory thoughts or feelings in mind at the same time, and therefore keeps the conflicting feelings apart and focuses on just one of them.

Self-psychology. The big issue is the nature and kind of emotional investment in the self. Narcissism plays a central role in the thinking of self-psychology. That is, the person deals with objects as if they were part of the self, or in terms of the object performing an essential function for the self. Such a distorted relationship requires a different form of treatment from that of neurotics.

Objects can be represented as "good" or satisfying one's needs and desires, or "bad" and not satisfying one's needs and desirs.

In short, object-relations is a way of conceptualizing interpersonal relations and extending psychoanalytic thinking into the interpersonal realm, but with a vocabulary that sounds rather odd to those not versed in the theory. It looks for the basis of our ways of relating to others at an earlier stage of development than did Freud, who emphasized the "genital stage."



Mini-bio. After marriage and birth of three children, specialized in psychoanalysis of children. Followed Anna Freud in working directly with children. Sigmund Freud knew about children other than his own only through the memories of his patients as reported during adulthood. At first Klein was traditionally psychoanalytic. Karen Horney placed her children in psychoanalysis with Klein to assist their growth and concluded that it did no good. Her daughters were confused and puzzled. Klein was always talking about penis envy and such things. Later Klein moved away from Freud. In the Freudian tradition, she saw the psychic world of infant and child as filled with primitive and savage conflict, murderous and cannibalistic tendencies. Klein was a transitional figure who stood between classical psychoanalysis and object relations theory proper.

Key ideas:Emphasized biological drives and instincts. Infant experiences the "death instinct" as a fear of death or annihilation. Fear of this destructive impulse within infant's self is transferred to an object that seems overpowering and uncontrollable in the helpless infant's fantasies.

Fantasies. Imaginal representations of bodily instincts and urges. The infant feels these in the body as well as mentally. They are very vivid because early on the infant can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Frustrations and discomfort are felt as if they were an attack by a hostile force. Resembles the crazy world of adult psychosis, but is normal for infants.

Objects. Drives are inherently aimed toward objects. The infant seeks milk from the breast. Breast that gives milk is good, breast that denies it bad. Object world during the first few months consists of gratifying and hostile parts of the infant's real world.

Psychic mechanisms used by infant include splitting, introjection, projection, and projective identification. Projection: Infant believes an object has qualities that are actually the infant's own feelings. Introjection is the mental fantasy through which the infant takes in something perceived in the world (for example, internalizing danger and deprivation.) Splitting is as defined above. Projective identification--imaginatively splitting off part of oneself and attributing it to another in order to control the other. This often includes splitting, in the form of externalization of inner anxiety and anger.

Ego and superego carry on functions previously performed by parents or others. Good breast becomes focal point around which ego develops. Infant deflects life instinct and death instinct on to external object (ex., the frustrating or gratifying breast.) This "fluctuation of introjection and projection creates the amalgam of ego and object that is the core of the developing ego." (St. Clair.) The superego does not accurately represent the parents as they are but is formed out of the infant's fantasy images of the parents, modified by his or her feelings and fantasies.

With increasing maturity, infant overcomes illusions of omnipotent control over objects. There is a decrease in projection and introjection and a rise in more accurate projection.

Task of therapy: To alleviate the early anxieties, and modify the harshness of internalized objects and inner persecutors. This is done through analyzing and interpreting the transference. Transference therapy is a new version of the fantasies, fears, and feelings that were involved in past relational experiences.(ref: Michael St. Clair: Object Relations and Self Psychology. Brooks/Cole/Wadsworth, 1986).



Mini-bio: Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1989. Studied divinity and Hellenistic Greek, Was in World War I, received medical degree, went into private practice, and taught at Edinburgh University.

Energy and structure. Fairbairn held that energy and structure are not separate entities: "Freud regards impulse (i.e. psychical energy) as theoretically distinct from structure, whereas I do not accept this distinction as valid and adhere to the principle of dynamic structure. (1954, p. 126)

Object or pleasure-seeking. Rather than pleasure-seeking, as Freud held, followed Klein in viewing libido as object-seeking--that is, in search of others.

Infantile wholeness. The baby starts life as a psychosomatic whole, however primitive and undeveloped. This is a more positive view than Klein.The fundamental dynamic wholeness of the human being is the most important natural characteristic.

Personality Development:

  • Stage I: Focus on infancy, breast feeding, and incorporation. The time of one's first object relationship. Early oral- pre-ambivalent sucking or biting. Late oral--ambivalent sucking or biting.
  • Stage II. Between infantile and mature dependance. Quasi-independence. In place of directing both love and hate toward the original object, there is a loved or accepted object, and a hated or rejected object. Four techniques for dealing with difficulties of the transition stage include obsessional, paranoid, hysterical, and phobic approaches.
  • State III: Mature Dependence. Dominant characteristic is an attitude of giving. Focus is on development of self-other differentiation and on the capacity for giving as well as taking.

Dichotomy of the object: the original object toward which both love and hate are directed is replaced by two objects--an accepted object and a rejected object. This dichotomization gives say to the use of the four techniques for dealing with the difficulty of the transition stage.

Structure of personality: The 5 structural factors are the Central Ego, the Libidinal Ego (more infantile, less organized, and less in touch with reality than the Central Ego, the Internal Saboteur (an aggressive and persecutory ego), the Rejecting (frustrating) object; and the Exciting (alluring) Object. The two dynamic factors are libido and aggression.

Psychopathology: Schizophrenia is related to disturbance of development arising in object-relationships over sucking (loving) and depression related to difficulties in object relationships over biting (hating.) The characteristic of the schizoid state is futility.

(ref: C.H. Patterson and E. Edward Watkins Jr.: Theories of Psychotherapy, 5th ed. HarperCollins, 1996)


D.W. WINNICOTT (1896-1971)

Winnicott, a pediatrician, watched many mothers and infants interact. How this interaction played out over time, he said, was crucial in infant growth and development. Satisfactory parental care, he said, includes three overlapping stages:

  1. Holding
  2. Mother and Infant Living together
  3. Father, Mother and infant, all three living together.

HOLDING includes actual physical holding, and caring for the child over time. It is psychological as well as physical.

As the infant moves from relative dependence toward independence, such terms are used as

  • good enough care
  • good enough environment
  • average expectable environment
  • facilitating environment.

True self--this is the part of the infant that feels creative, spontaneous, and real. False self--is "built up on the basis of compliance." With "good enough" care the true self can emerge, but without it the false self emerges.

Transitional objects are the infant's first not-me possessions, like a blanket or doll. They are tangible--can be held onto, grasped, hugged. They lessen the stress of separation and soothe the infant. Transitional phenomena are behaviors--repetitive actions like rocking, or fantasies, which serve the same function as transitional object.

HENRY GUNTRIP followed Fairbairn and introduced the concept of regressed ego, which was the ultimate source of psychopathology and focus of analytic treatment. He gave considerable attention to the schizoid personality, who "feels a deep dread of entering into a real personal relationship, i.e. one into which genuine feeling enters, because...he can only sustain a relationship at a deep emotional level on the basis of infantile and absolute dependence. ...You are always impelled into a relationship by your needs and at once driven out again" by the fear of either exausting your love-object by your demands of losing your individuality by over-depencence and identification. To escape from this "in and out" oscillation (typical schizoid behavior) into detachment and loss of feeling is the typical schizoid state. (Guntrip, 1969)

Treatment involves rapport, transference, and regrowing or maturing. "The patient feel that what he really needs is the basically non-erotic love of a stable parent in and through which the child grows up to possess...a maturing strength of selfhood through which he becomes separate without feeling "cut-off" and the orginal relationship to parents develops into adult friendship....Therapeutic change can only come about in, and as a direct result of, a good-object relationship." (in Patterson & Watkins)


.EDITH JACOBSON emphasized the development of the superego (literal translation of Freud--the "over-I." Includes three layers of development. The first, primitive, punitive images; the second, the ego ideal; the third, realistic, moderate identifications. Moderate and realistic functions replace crude fears.


MARGARET MAHLER, along with Winnicott, place great emphasis on the importance of holding a child. This is true both for literal holding, which helps the child feel secure through body contact, and also psychological holding. The latter keeps tension and frustration from becoming too great. It involves "holding a space" within which the child can be itself and feel protected and secure. Wrong holding can include not holding a child physically or psychologically when it needs to be held, or holding it too tightly in a way that is felt as smothering, so that individuality does not have a chance to develop."Don't push too fast, but don't hold too close for too long." If the mother isn't there for the child when it tries to move away, it forces the child to move away too soon.

Development and "psychological birth." A good mother gradually pulls the child toward increased sensory awareness of the environment. Maybe a mobile over the crib for eye contact. By the third month, the infant begins to sense itself, begins to remember. The psychological awareness, or "psychological birth" starts to happen about then. The infant starts to have a memory.

The separation-individuation state. Has four phases.

Differentiation and body image. Further psychological development. The infant starts to pull away from the mother a bit. 7-8 months--eyes begin to move away from mother, but always check back to her. "Hatching" phase. Shift from outer-directed to inner-directed attention. If the mother is too neurotic, and needs the infant to focus on her needs, it interferes with normal development. Instead of needing the infant to mirror her, she should be mirroring the infant.

Practicing period. Crawling, standing up. That begins with holding on. Then moves from crawling and standing to actually walking. Always, not going too far, looking back to see if mother is there. A healthy child may go to another friendly adult. Overprotectiveness may delay this phase. Don't push the child, and don't hold it back.

Rapprochement. Second half of second year. Child wants mother to share every new skill and experience. "See, mommy!" She & father need to enjoy that. "Yeah, you did it. Great." Then, the development of greater autonomy. This can be the "terrible twos" if the parents view it as defiance and get into power struggles with the child. If not, it becomes simply a time of enjoying the child's greater self-reliance and newfound ability to say "no." If parents squelch the child then, it leads to an inability to say no later in life even when it's very important to do so.

Object constancy. Third year and beyond. An internalization of the image of the mother. At this point child no longer really need's mother's presence. Can hold the image of her inside while she's away. Can use an object like a toy tosupply comfort in her absance.

  • Child is cognitively putting things together, cause and effect. Remember the past and think of the future: Mother will return.
  • Also the beginnings of the conscience. "No, I shouldn't do this," spank self on the hand, etc. If handled badly by caregivers, this stage involves the development of pathological shame and guilt. In adulthood, "I'm not okay, not good enough, etc."
  • Beginnings of ego development (in the Freudian sense). Learning that there are consequences for acting in certain ways. The reality principle replaces the pleasure principle. Some children at this stage will actively seek the father, fear being reengulfed by the mother.

The very heavy emphasis on the mother in the paragraphs above is somewhat dated. Today the father is much more involved much earlier.


IVAN BOSZORMENYI-NAGY(prounouced "Nazshe.) Applied object relations not only to development, but to adult social interaction, especially in family systems. The most explicitly interpersonal of the object-relations theorists.

Basic idea: I need someone (object) in the drive area in which I need to be active and vice versa. The sense of relating that results helps both of us gain individuation and clarify self-object boundaries. Each of us has an "internal conception of the self" and an "internal conception of the other"--the "internal other."

Relatedness and individuation: A person goes through stages of development in which the motive of individuation is dominant and others when relatedness is dominant. But both are also present to some degree at every stage. My daughter when she was three: One minute she responded to my offer to help her with something: "I want to do it by MYSELF." Three minutes later: "Pick me up. Hold me!"

Four existential attitudes of relatedness. If person A makes a relational move, person B can:

  1. join the move
  2. counter with a different move or striving
  3. become the object of A's move or striving, or
  4. be indifferent to the move

Choice 4, indifference, may involve B's turning to his internal relational world as a response to A's move.

"Merger" leads to at least partial and temporary extinction of the person as a discrete dynamic entity. This is similar to the Gestalt therapy term "confluence."

The third alternative, acceptance of the object role, may but does not have to mean a captive relational role.

Healthy development and interaction--subject and object roles. The people in a relationship need to develop a tradeoff, an ebb and flow, a give and take, between subject and object roles, each playing object to the others's subject/initiating, then reversing. Alternating of subject and object roles is a vital structural component of both personality and relationships. Trouble results if you lock yourself (or get locked into) being consistently the subject or consistently the object.

  • A healthy relational engagement includes tuning into the partner's object-seeking wants or needs.
  • Both partners discover themselves in part through dialogue with the other. For example, playful boxing betwen father and sun is a friendly rather than destructive encounter, with each offering himself to the other's aggressive needs.

Being the object. The other may be strongly invested in assigning an exclusively object role to you. This may be done from an imperious authoritarian position, or from a position of apparent victim who really controls the situation ("Oh, poor me, how can you do this to your dear old mother?)

  • A person may be a "captive" of object-role assignment--unable to escape the assigned role.
  • Being force-fed an object role impedes development of one's own autonomy, self-support, and ability to tbe the subject.
  • A child may be fed a "parental" role, with the parent demanding to be taken care of (physically or emotionally) rather than providing the child with the caretaking it needs.
  • Someone to whom the subject role is denied may adopt a strategy of "passive-receptive mastery" which involves developing strategies to influence powerful others. Example: secondary gains from being sick.
  • There may be disregard for any individuality or autonomy among family members. Member's will finish each other's sentences or claim to express other's innermost feelings.

Being the subject. Rigid insistence on the subject role means trying to make others comply with all one's needs.

  • The person who does this is a "taker" and never learns to give.
  • If two people in a relationship insist on doing this, they're in the dilemma of trying to fit an interpersonal relationship into intrapsychic ones. Whoever succeeds in transforming the other partner into a parent "wins" the object-role assignment game. A sick adult may succeed in this through his suffering, the demanding family member through guilt-arousing blame.
  • The person who gets "hooked" into the parental position of a parental object is the loser in the contest, and catches the shit from everyone else.
  • A common transactional system between parents of a schizophrenic patient is pointless, endless bickering. The deeper structure of this often infolve's their inability to face their own (possibly unconscious) negative, critical attitudes toward theor own parents.

Relational need template. These are structural sets of internal needs which lead to projecting onto others the qualities the person wants to see that will fulfill these needs. It's like holding up a stencil that embodies the needs and being able to see only what's visible through the stencil. If I'm paranoid, I vew everyone as potentially malicious and threatening. If I'm desperate for affection, I may see every woman as a "warm, mothering" figure--which can lead to a fall when a particular woman is really a cold hard bitch. When a person has such delusional projections, and perhaps also transference distortions (perceiving this other person as like another person in a past relationship even though they're not really like that other person), the Other is consistently seen through these screens. Or other's may be selectively perceived as fitting the template.

  • When a person is stuck in transference distortions and delusional projections, the other is always seen through the distortion of emotionally loaded internal relationships. Then:
  • A person has no realistic perception of himself or herself as object to another.
  • The real Other can't be perceived without contamination by the self's internal other. This includes the other's messages, which are typically received in distorted form.
  • The more pathology, the less the person is able to perceive others as they are. So instead of the dyad existing as a dialogue, it exists as mutual projections.

Family pathology is an interlocking pattern of primary process-like maneuvers. The family system provides for immediate discharge for family members' fantasies through patterns of acting-out. The family system prevents the individualtion necessary for its members to develop autonomy. Every member may assign an unconsciously wished-for parental role to another member.Each person who assigns a transference parental role to anothers is exempted from the task of genuine growth, and puts off the painful process of coming to terms with his or her own childhood disturbances of parental relationships, such as occur when parents aree abusive or rejecting toward children, or when a parent is lost through death, desertion , or prolonged separation.

Connections from other viewpoints: If you're interested in Boszormenyi-Nagy's approach, you may want to check out prior analyses of social interation that have more than a little in common with his approach. In the communications theory side of family systems therapy, William Lederer's and Don Jackson's The Mirages of Marriage is a seminal work that addresses some of these issues. A decade later, social psychologists John Thibaut and Harold H. Kelley developed a social exchange theory of relationships that examined exchange phenomena in some detail. See their The Social Psychology of Groups, or Kelley's Personal Relationships.

OTTO KERNBERG (1928-?). Born in Austria, educated in Chile and at the Menninger Clinic, practiced in New York. Uses the term object for a mental image of of a person, an image colored with feelings. He sees affectively charged relational experiences as the basic blocks of psychic structures. He "mixes the drive model and the object relations model by having the self-representation and the object representation build up under the influence of libidinal and aggressive drives" (St. Clair). Gave somewhat more attention to later childhood than most other object relations theorists, when ego identity continues to evolve by "reshaping experiences with external objects.

Borderline disorders--a central focus for Kernberg.Result from history of extreme frustration that provokes intense anger and agggression during first few years of life. Child tries to protect self by projecting this aggression back onto the parents. Mother is seen as potentially dangerous and threatening. One or both patrents may be hated and feared, and later sexual relationships are viewed as tdangerous. Attempts at solution may include homosexuality or promiscuity. DSM IV on borderline disorders: (1) Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment; (2) a pattern of intense and unstable relationships with alternation between idealization and devaluation; (3) unstable identity or sense of self; (4) potentially self-damaging impulsivity in such areas as spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating; (5) recurrentl suicidal behavior or threats; (6) intense moode reactivity (7) chronic feelings of emptiness; (8) inappropriate anger; (9) transient, stress-related paranoid ideation of severe dissociative symptoms.


HEINZ KOHUT (1913-?)

Self psychology. Kohut labelled his version of object relations theory "self-psychology" and placed his primary emphasis on narcissism.Unlike Kernberg who viewed narcissism as fundamentally unhealth, Kohut thought there are both healthy and unhealthy forms of narcissism.

"Narcisstic pathology is due to the absence of the parents' empathic response to the child's needs to be mirrored and to find a target for idealization....The parent may be unable to listen to the child with pride in the child's accomplishment or the parent may distract attention from the child and not fulfill the child's need for appropriate admiration. The chronic nonresponsiveness ...keeps the child fom building up the psychic structures capable of dealing with anxiety [and] that regulate tension and tame affects." (St. Clair) May become overprone to inappropriate panic. Sexual and aggressive drives may be intensified. An occasional lapse by the parents is no big thing; rather, what matters is chronic parental inability to respond correctly.

The Vertical Split' Involves the side-by-side conscious existence in the psyche of incompatible psychic attitudes. The reality ego maybe walled off from the unrealistic narcissistic aspects by means of disavowal or isolation." The unmodified grandiose self intrudes into mmany activities, such as vain and boastful behavior.

Therapy. Emphasizes empathic sensitivity to the subjective experience of the patient, especially the patient's experience of the therapist. Therapy involves the patient developing "an observing segment of the personality that can cooperate witht the therapist.... The therapist establishes a situation that encourages the reactivation of original developmental tendencies. The mirroring transference activates the grandiose self that seeks confirming well as the idealizing transference which the self seeks to merge with the ideal, omnipotent object. ...The transferences will make themselves the patient's demands for attention, admiration, and a variety of mirroring and echoing responses to his or her mobilized grandiose self." (St. Clair)


A CRITIQUE OF OBJECT-RELATIONS THEORY. I think it is important to note that the object relations view developed entirely within the context of neolocal families in which the mother and father set up their family unit in a new location. To my knowledge, none of these theorists studied extended family systems in which there are multiple mothering and fathering figures in the form of various aunts, uncles, and grandparents relating to the infant in early life, with any examination of how the developmental process may differ in such instances.

In addition, notes my former student, Sonnette Caldwell Barr, "Object relations [except, to some degree, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy] does not take into account the social system that creates pathology. It doesn't take into account social norms and constructions. It is superficially an interperrsonal approach in the dyadic relationship between mother and infant, yet it is from an intrapersonal approach with the goal of healing being individuation, a "self-contained individualism.... Ironically, the more we separate ourselves from our community, the more chance of social abuse or family violence. When all else fails in the home, the community is able to "mirror" appropriate behavior for the fledglings of our society, which might be the root of the resilience phenomenon. Yet the dominant philosophy of the past 100 years [in Europe and America] was a breeding ground for furthering the individualistic approach. Self-contained individualism is synonomous with a head without a body, as the head is a very small part of the entire person. If you neglect the body in favor of the head, the body will reveal its pathology. This is analogous to the head being the individual and the body being the social structure. Twentieth century psychology has neglected the social structure." She ends with a quote from Nietzsche: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process (s)he does not become a monster. For when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." (From "A head without a body." Unpublished paper, 2001)

revised 102007