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Object Relations Theory


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > Object Relations Theory

Description | Discussion | See also



Object Relations Theory is a theory of relationships between people, in particular within a family and especially between the mother and her child. A basic tenet is that we are driven to form relationships with others and that failure to form successful early relationships leads to later problems.

It is also concerned with the relation between the subject and their internalized objects, as well as with external objects. Thus we have a relationship with the internal mother as well as an external one.

The development of male gender identity is seen as more difficult as the first person with whom the infant identifies is female.

Winnicott differentiated between object-relating and object-usage. Object-relating is a phenomenon of the subject and thus about Projection and the early undifferentiated unity when the mother facilitates the child's illusion of omnipotence. Object-usage is more developed, as it requires cognitive separation from the object.


The idea of object relations was invented and developed in a paper by Karl Abraham (1927), however Melanie Klein is largely credited with developing the modern theory, particularly with the mother as the principal object.

Unlike Freud, who focused on introjection of same-sex parents, Object Relations Theory considers the child having multiple internal objects.

Klein saw relations with the breast as significant. As the child feeds, it feels gratified and satiated when the breast produces sufficient milk, in which case it is loved and cherished. When the child is prematurely withdrawn or the breast does not provide sufficient food, the child is frustrated and the breast is hated and the recipient of hostile thoughts. The mother thus receives love or destructive attack depending on this.

The baby experiences extremes of feeling. When he is angry, it is total anger and rejects and thrusts away the mother. When he is happy, he loves and adores her. He projects his bad feeling and associates her with it.

ORT is related to Attachment Theory.

See also

Klein, Object, Good object, bad object, Projection and introjection

Klein, M. (1984). The psycho-analysis of children (A. Strachey, Trans.). R. Money-Kyrle  (Ed.), The writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 2). New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1932)

Abraham, K. (1927). Selected Papers of Karl Abraham, London: Hogart Press


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