How Object Relations Theory Can Help Your Relationship

By William Drake|Updated August 3, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

Wondering if therapy with a focus on object relations theory can help you? In object relations theory, the word "object" refers to a person. The "object" played a major role in that person's life when they were an infant or small child, such as a parent. An approach based on object relations theory can benefit your current well-being.

Wondering If Object-Relationship Therapy Can Help You Relationship?

We all create mental images that we carry with us through life. When we are healthy, these images change and evolve as we do. But, if a person is not healthy, these images become stuck at an immature level that can create unhealthy adult relationships. Read on to discover more about therapy with an object relations focus.

Breaking Down The Basics

You have probably heard that healthy relationships take work. While there is truth to that statement, there may be more to the picture. This is where therapy for object relations comes in.

You might feel like you are investing a lot of time into your relationships, but you might not use that time effectively if you are viewing your relationships through an incorrect lens. Most theorists believe that your earliest interactions — or your object relations — during childhood play a large part in how you view your current relationships. So if you are struggling now, it may be directly linked to the way you viewed relationships as a child. Object relations therapy can improve current relationships by addressing unhealthy patterns from the past. 

What Is Object Relations Therapy?

During the early years of life, we use experiences from our closest relationships — our object relations — to subconsciously form ideas and standards. Most often, we are unaware of these standards. If we have a difficult time interacting with others as an adult, it may be the result of standards that we unknowingly created as children. Since we weren't aware of creating these standards, it is difficult to overcome our current challenges until we can become more fully aware of the past and explore those object relations.

A therapist using object relations therapy will help clients explore their past to find these standards, and then work on altering them to enable healthier relationships in the present and future. By focusing on your relations to "objects" — or people — you can take steps forward and better understand your relationships.

The History Of Object Relations Therapy

Object relations is a psychoanalytic theory that was created using ideas from three different theorists. Each therapist who developed object relations-focused therapy believed that the bond between mother and child is developmentally significant. These object relations founders believed that this bond plays a large role in the child's psychic 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, sustenance, etc.   

Melanie Klein is most often credited with founding object relations therapy. Her theory focuses on the first few months of a child's life. Klein believed that the relationship between the child and their caregivers is primary, creating a model for all future relationships.

Donald Winnicott focused on the importance of children being raised in an encouraging environment for object relations-focused therapy. He believed that children should be encouraged to develop independence while simultaneously being reassured that they are protected from danger. His theory suggests that a child can develop a “false self" if caregivers do not properly attend to its needs, through which the child protects itself by limiting emotional reactions and becoming numb.  However, if the child is accurately seen and accepted, their true self will emerge.

Ronald Fairbairn agreed for the most part with Klein's theory. However, he believed that human development is a more gradual process. During this process, a human grows from being completely dependent as an infant, relying on the caregiver for everything, to being interdependent. At this point, they can balance independence with healthy dependence on others. All these individuals contributed to what we consider therapy with an object relations focus today.

What Is the Goal?

The goal of object relations therapy is to help people improve relationships by improving the way they function internally. Through therapy, the provider will review patients' childhood object relations to see how those interactions may influence their current relationships.

How Does It Work?

When object relations therapy begins, the therapist works to establish trust with the patient. During therapy, they show empathy as they learn about the hopes, fears, family background, and inner world of the patient. They show acceptance of the patient as they listen. Once the therapist has established trust, they can start guiding the patient through the more difficult places in their lives. This is where the true object relations work begins.

The purpose of object relations-focused therapy is for the patient to gain greater self-awareness. When interacting with the patient, the therapist will be able to recognize general ways in which the patient interacts with others. These insights can be used to help the patient to gain awareness, which can lead to a greater ability to form object relations that are healthy, replacing or transforming any old and unhealthy object relations. The key to object relations therapy is the therapist's ability to connect with the patient and build trust around their object relations. If this connection does not happen, the patient will not be comfortable abandoning their current attachment style and exploring their object relations, even if they have led to unhealthy relationships. The therapeutic environment needs to be safe and comfortable — the optimal conditions for improving object relations through therapy.

Helping Your Current Relationship

If you had unhealthy relationships with those closest to you as a child, then it can be difficult for you to have healthy relationships as an adult. This is a central idea to object relations-focused therapy. While you most likely don't even know that you are doing it, you are projecting object relations from your past (such as with your mother or father) onto the people with whom you are intimately involved today. This can lead to unhealthy adult relationships and negative patterns that repeat themselves, no matter how hard you try to break them. This is why therapy for object relations is so important.

Wondering If Object-Relationship Therapy Can Help You Relationship?

The Limitations

Object relations-focused therapy is not a quick fix. Therapy with an object relations focus is designed to deal with deep-seated issues. The approach tends to be non-directive; object relations therapy is not well suited for individuals who are looking for quick results. In addition, it takes time for the patient to develop a bond during therapy and feel comfortable enough to share the most personal parts of their lives. Some forms of object relations therapy can be used to explore more recent events in a person's life. Therapy through object relations has a narrower focus when compared to complete object relations therapy, and it therefore does not require as much time to achieve the desired results.

Object relations therapy alone is not recommended for treating clients with autism, some forms of psychosis, or some learning disabilities. In addition, there are some cases where pharmacological support is necessary for clients to make meaningful changes. Make sure to check with your provider to see if object relations is an acceptable therapy route for you.

Online Therapy Can Help

The demand for treatments like object relations therapy has been growing in recent years. And online therapy makes exploring your object relations simple and convenient. If you are struggling in your current relationships with patterns that you can trace back to earlier in life, you may benefit from object relations therapy. Start looking for a professional that you connect with, with whom you can explore object relations-focused therapy. 

Conclusion

Childhood relationships can affect present ones. Therapy with an object relations focus can help. Working through your childhood during therapy through an object relations lens is not easy, but it is worth it in the long run. Object relations during therapy can open you eyes to new insights you didn't see previously. You can truly enjoy a fulfilling adult life — all you need are the right tools, which may include therapy with an object relations focus. Take the first step through BetterHelp.

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