How Object Relations Therapy Can Help Your Relationship

By William Drake

Updated November 19, 2019

Reviewer Aaron Horn

You have probably heard that healthy relationships take work. While there is truth to that statement, there may be more to the picture. 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 as a child 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.

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Breaking Down the Basics

In object relations therapy, the word "object" refers to a person. Specifically, this "object" is a person that played a major role in a person's life when they were an infant and small child. Typically, this will have been the mother, father, or another caregiver. As an infant and small child, we create mental images that we carry with us through life. We are generally unaware of these images; however, they are what we evoke when we form ongoing relationships. 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.

What Is Object Relations Therapy?

During the early years of life, we use experiences from our closest relationships 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. 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.

The History of Object Relations Therapy

Object relations therapy was created using ideas from three different theorists. Each therapist believed that the bond between mother and child is developmentally significant. They believed that this bond plays a large role in the child's psychic structure for the first several years of life.

Melanie Klein is most often credited with founding object relations therapy. Her theory focuses on the first few months of a child's life. She theorized 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. He believed that children should be encouraged to develop independence while simultaneously being reassured that they are protected from danger. His theory suggests that children can develop "false selves" if caregivers do not properly attend to a child's needs. However, if the child is accurately seen and accepted, their true self will emerge.


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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.

What Is the Goal of Object Relations Therapy?

The goal of object relations therapy is to help people improve relationships by improving the way they function internally. A therapist 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. 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.

The purpose of this 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 ones. 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 their current attachment style, even if it has led to unhealthy relationships. The therapeutic environment needs to be safe and comfortable.

How Can Object Relations Therapy 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 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.

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The Limitations of Object Relations Therapy

Object relations therapy is not a quick fix. The treatment is designed to deal with deep-seated issues. The approach tends to be nondirective; this 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 with the therapist 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. This therapy 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.

BetterHelp Can Help

Object relations therapy requires a trained professional. This could be a psychologist, social worker, or other counselor. 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 this therapy today. BetterHelp has thousands of credentialed therapists that offer affordable private therapy. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing different issues and life challenges.

Counselor Reviews

"Lauren is kind and empathetic when I need it and stern and blunt when I need it. Her experience working with childhood trauma made her the perfect match for me. I'm very thankful for my sessions with her. I hope BetterHelp pays her well, because she's worth more than they know."

"Dr. Counts is such wonderful counselor. I don't know where I would be right now without him. No matter what problem I come to him with, he is able to help me work through the emotions I am facing. Dr. Counts is always there with a sympathetic and kind ear, yet he is still able to give me pertinent advice and confront my unhealthy thoughts and coping mechanisms. I look forward so much to our weekly meeting. He is the one person in my life that I can come to with 100% no judgment. I can not tell you how much of a relief having that relationship is. I can genuinely say that since meeting regularly with Dr. Counts I am a happier person. I can think of no greater recommendation than that."

Conclusion

Childhood relationships can affect present ones. Object relations therapy can help. Working through your childhood with a therapist is not easy, but it is worth it. You can truly enjoy a fulfilling, adult life-all you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.


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