How Object Relations Therapy Can Help Your Relationship

By Stephanie Kirby

Updated December 20, 2018

Reviewer Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC


You have probably heard that healthy relationships take work. While there is a lot of truth to that statement, it often isn't the only answer. You might feel like you are investing a lot of time into your relationships, but it might not be effective if you are viewing your relationships through incorrect lenses. Many theorists believe that your earliest interactions as a child play a large part in how you view your current relationships today. So, if you are struggling currently, it may be based on the way you viewed relationships as a child. Object relations therapy works to improve current relationships by treating unhealthy images from the past.

Breaking Down The Basics

When understanding object relations therapy the first thing that you need to understand is that the word "object" refers to a person. The object in object relations therapy is a person that played a major role in a person's life when they were an infant and small child. Typically it refers to the mother, father, or another caregiver.

As an infant and small child, a person creates mental images that they carry through life with them. They are most often unaware of these images. These images are what a person uses to base their social interactions with others off of. In a healthy person, these images change and evolve as the person grows. But, if the person is not healthy these images remain at an immature level that can create unhealthy adult relationships.

What Is Object Relations Therapy?

Object relations therapy is based on the theory that humans enter into relationships in the present based on the experiences and relationships that they had as a child with their parents, caregivers, and other close family members. During the early years of life, a child uses the experiences that they have in their closest relationships to subconsciously form ideas and standards. These standards are what they subconsciously use throughout life when socially interacting with others. The majority of the time the person is unaware of these standards that they have created.


When someone has a difficult time interacting with others or has challenges within present relationships, it can be caused by the standards that they unknowingly created as a child. Since they didn't realize they were creating these standards, it is difficult for them to overcome their current challenges until they can address the past. A therapist using object relations therapy will help the person explore their past to find these standards and then work on altering them so the person can continue with healthier relationships in the future.

The History Of Object Relations Therapy

Object relations therapy was created by a collaboration of ideas from three different theorists. Each of them believed that there is a large emphasis on the bond that is between the mother and infant as a child develops. They believed that during this bond played a large role in the child's psychic structure for the first several years of life.

The first of the theorists is Melanie Klein. She is the one that is most often credited with founding object relations therapy. Her theory focuses on the first few months that a child is alive. Unlike Freud, who believed that sexual and aggressive urges control children, she theorized that the real focus is on the relationships between the child and the caregivers.


The second of the theorists is Donald Winnicott. His focus was on the importance of children being raised in an encouraging environment. He thought they should be taught to develop independence while still being reassured that they are protected from danger. His theory suggested that the child could develop a false self if the caregiver is not properly caring for the child's needs and potential. But, if all of the aspects of the child are acknowledged and accepted the child's true self will emerge.

The third of the theorists is Ronald Fairbairn. He agreed with Klein's theory that people seek objects instead of pleasure, as Freud originally said. In his theory development is a more gradual process. During this process, a baby grows from being completely dependent as an infant, relying on the caregiver for everything, all the way to being interdependent. At this point, they can be relied on by others but also remain dependent on others as well.

What Is The Goal Of Object Relations Therapy?

The goal of object relations therapy is to help people improve relationships by discovering areas that need improving in the way they function internally. A therapist will walk their patient through their childhood objects to understand them better and see how it influences the current motivations, emotions, and relationships that they have. It also helps them to see how it contributes to any problems in relationships that they have.

How Does It Work?

When object relations therapy begins, the therapist works to establish trust with the patient. They sit and listen and show empathy as they learn about the fears, hopes, family background, and the 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.

The purpose of this therapy is to gain more self-awareness for the patient. While interacting together, the therapist will be able to recognize the general ways that others understand their patient that they interact with on a regular basis. These insights can be used to help the patient to gain awareness, which can lead to a better ability to form object relations that are healthy, replacing or transforming any old and unhealthy ones. This can be used in their current relationships that they have in life.


The key to object relations therapy is the therapist's ability to connect with the patient and build trust. If this connection does not happen, the patient will not be comfortable abandoning the attachments and internal objects that they have known, even if it has led to unhealthy relationships. The environment needs to safe and comfortable space.

How Can It Help 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. While you most likely don't even know that you are doing it, you are projecting your experiences and created standards from the object in your past (such as your mother or father) unto another person you have a current relationship with. If you have unhealthy standards created from this object it doesn't matter what the other person does in your current relationship, the problem will not be fixed.

The Limitations Of Object Relations Therapy

Object relations therapy is not a quick-fix therapy. The purpose and strategy of the treatment are to deal with deep-seated concerns and issues. It takes time for the patient to develop a bond with the therapist to feel comfortable enough to share the most personal parts of their lives. Object relations therapy can be costly because it can often take years of treatment to achieve the goal, as opposed to the months it takes other treatment. However, some forms of object relations therapy can be used to explore more recent events in a person's life. This therapy has a narrow focus when compared to complete object relations therapy and therefore does not require as much time. To achieve desired results.

Object relations therapy is not the ideal therapy when someone is struggling with addiction or other issues that could lead them to harm themselves or others. The approach during therapy is non-directive and is not best suited for individuals that need to address issues in a more direct way that leads to faster results. However, when the immediate needs of the situation are handled, then the person can benefit from object relations therapy. It allows them to explore how past relationships helped lead to the current situations.


This type of treatment alone is not ideal for treating people that have autism, some forms of psychosis, or some learning disabilities. Using this form of treatment on individuals with these challenges has been criticized and debated by many medical professionals. There are some cases where pharmacological support is necessary to help treat an individual most effectively.

Getting Treatment

Object relations therapy is a type of therapy that needs to be led by a trained professional. This could be a psychologist, psychotherapist, social worker, or counselor. Therapists earn certificates in the training of object relations therapy. If you are struggling in your current relationships, or find that this is a pattern in your life, you may benefit from object relations therapy. Start looking for a professional that you connect with to explore this therapy today. Do not allow your current relationships to continue to be held back by your past experiences.

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