Object Relations Theory Explained

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Many psychological theories investigate the influence childhood relationships and adverse experiences may have on the health of adult relationships. One of these is object relations theory, the theory that individuals have an innate need for relationships and social connection. If you are experiencing relationship challenges with your current relationships, object relations therapy with an object relations therapist may be beneficial.

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What is object relations theory?

Unlike Sigmund’s Freud’s belief that people are motivated by sexual and aggressive drives (psychoanalytic theory), object relations theory suggests people are motivated by connection and a need to form relationships. Objects relations theory, in context to what Sigmund Freud believed, posits that early childhood interactions in a child’s life may impact our development and personalities into adulthood. In objects relations theory, "objects" (internal objects or external objects) are significant individuals or objects with whom a child interacts, such as caregivers, siblings, or a parent's or mother’s breast. How we interact with an internal object or people as children may teach us what to expect from relationships as we grow and mature. The object relations theory says that our past relationships may impact our future relationships, so as a child begins interacting with those around them it can impact how they perceive relationships in the future. 

For example, according to object relations theorists, if our childhood relationships with our primary caregivers were hallmarked by neglect, inattention, or abuse, as adults, we may expect our relationships with spouses, children, and friends to exhibit the same characteristics. The object relations psychoanalytic theory supposes that these early relationships with our primary caregiver, like the mother infant relationship, can impact a person’s life and how they form relationships. Object relations therapy may improve your current relationships by addressing unhealthy patterns and thought processes from the past that may have impacted your personality development and the way you relate to other people. Some may also find it helpful to attend family therapy and work through any longstanding familial conflicts or difficulties.

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What is object relations therapy?

During the early years of life, our experiences with our closest relationships—our object relations—may subconsciously influence our ideas and behaviors, both for good and bad. Often, we may be unaware of object relations' impact on us, especially as young children. Later in life, our experience interacting with others may result from standards and object relationships we unknowingly created as children, such as the mother/infant bond. Since we were unaware of creating these standards, it may be difficult to overcome the current challenges and subdue internal conflict until we are more fully aware of our past's influence on us.

A therapist using object relations therapy may help clients explore their pasts to discover these standards and then work on altering them to enable healthier interpersonal relationships in the present and future. You might better understand your current relationships by focusing on your relations to these fundamental objects, like your mother and father. Mental health professionals can earn certificates in object relations therapy from places like the International Psychotherapy Institute or other psychology institutes around the country. 

The history of object relations theory 

Object relations theory was created using ideas from three different theorists. Each therapist who developed object relations-focused therapy believed that the bond between parent and child is developmentally significant and plays a meaningful role in a child's psychological structure for the first several years of life. Central to object relations theory is the idea of object constancy, which refers to an infant's ability to form a bond that exists separate from the need for attention or sustenance.

Melanie Klein developed the Kleinian object relations theory, which focuses on the first few months of a child's life. Klein felt that the relationship between the child and their caregivers creates a model for all future relationships.

Another theorist, Donald Winnicott, focused on the importance of children being raised in an encouraging environment for object relations-focused therapy. He believed their authentic self would emerge if the children were seen and accepted, especially during the critical developmental stage.

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The last contributing theorist to object relations theory, Ronald Fairbairn, believed that human development is a more gradual process than Klein. During this process, a person may grow from entirely dependent on their caregiver to interdependent. At this point, they may balance independence with a healthy dependence on others. 

Together, these individuals' ideas contributed to object relations theory and techniques used in object relations therapy.

What is the goal of object relations therapy?
The goal of object relations therapy focuses on helping patients improve their relationships by changing how they function internally and experience interactions with others. Through therapy, the mental health practitioner will review the individuals' childhood object relations to see how those interactions may influence their current relationships.

Often, the purpose of object relations-focused therapy is for the patient to gain a more accurate self-awareness of their internalized image or images. When interacting with the patient during object relations therapy, object relations therapists may recognize how the individual interacts with others, including their friends, family, and significant others. These insights can help the patient gain awareness, which can lead to the ability to replace or transform old and unhealthy object relations with healthier ones. 

The therapist's ability to connect with the patient and build trust around their object relations may be crucial. If this connection does not happen and a solid therapeutic relationship isn’t built, the patient may feel uncomfortable abandoning their current attachment style (based in attachment theory) and exploring their object relations.

Object relations therapy may improve individuals' current relationships by helping them recognize how they may be projecting object relations from their past onto the individuals with whom they may be intimately involved in the present. Suppose your past relationships were unhealthy or your childhood fears were not addressed. In that case, it may lead to unhealthy adult relationships, anxiety in relationships, intense fears of abandonment, aggressive impulses, or negative patterns that repeat themselves. Object relations therapy aims to address and change these patterns. 

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Limitations of object relations theory

Object relations-focused therapy can take time. Therapy with an object relations focus may be designed to deal with deep-seated issues that can go as far back as infancy or early childhood. The approach is largely non-directive, so it can take time and may be distressing for those looking for instant results. However, some forms of object relations therapy can also be used to explore more recent events in a person's life. 

Object relations therapy alone may not be recommended for treating autistic clients, some forms of psychosis, or learning disabilities. However, it may be helpful for mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In some cases, pharmacological support may be recommended to help clients to make meaningful changes during object relations therapy.

Counseling options 

If you are struggling in your current relationships with patterns that you can trace back to early life, you may benefit from object relations therapy. You can participate in this therapy module in person or online. If you face treatment barriers such as cost, or schedule conflicts, you might also benefit from internet-based object relations therapy. 

Online therapy may benefit symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and many mental health conditions. This treatment modality may benefit individuals looking for support with relationship problems. Online, you may easily connect with a therapist specializing in working with couples or individuals, even if these therapists are unavailable in your local area. It may be helpful to know that mental health professionals generally implement a policy in which they do not give the information you discuss during sessions with others.

Research into online therapy for relationships shows that online therapy may yield positive outcomes and comes with many additional benefits, such as convenience and reduction of social stigma. If you seek support with your relationships, consider signing up for a platform like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples to find a provider matched to your needs. 

Takeaway

Childhood relationships may affect adult connections later in a person’s life. Therapy with an object relations focus may help you explore your underlying beliefs about your relationships so you can make positive changes in the present and future. To learn more, consider reaching out to a professional for compassionate guidance and support.

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