⌬ Lecture №11 | Object Relations Theories: An Overview

Social | Psychoanalytic | Work

Dec 17 2021 • 32 mins

Hello!

This is the first of two podcast lectures that will cover Object Relations Theories. You, my astute listener, will notice that I said object relations theories --plural. I did not say theory --singular. This is important! Your text pointed out.

Object relations theory is the term that has come to describe the work of a group of psychodynamic thinkers, both in England and the United States. Although almost always written in the singular, object relations theory is not actually a theory, because it refers to the work of many writers who did not necessarily identify themselves as part of any given school ad who often argued and disagreed quite passionately with one another.

A note on the text

I'm just going to come right out and say this: I think this chapter is not so good because it tried to include too much content. I don't know about you, but for me, the result is feeling like I just rode a roller coaster of theory, where concepts and ideas went whipping past me faster than I could process them.

If that's how you feel, I hope that this podcast lecture will help to add to what you read and contextualize it a bit more. I hope that you'll feel like you've got a better grasp of these ideas at the end.

Review

Some of the theories we have already covered use the term object relations.

  • Ego psychology uses it as an ego function.
  • Self-psychology talks about self-objects, which is a version of object relations.
  • Freud talked about drive objects, which would be the object that our drive desires and will pursue no matter what.

So, object relations should not be a totally new term. However, object relations theories represent an entire body of thought that takes object relations and makes it the primary focus of psychotherapeutic work.

Overview of similarity:

Before we get into some specific thinkers, I want to talk about some of the main ideas that I think you'll see in all object relations theories. (You might find these ideas expressed differently from one thinker's work to the next, but I think what the ideas represent is more similar than different.)

  1. The term object refers to other people in the world. It is used to differentiate other people from the person who experiences or who is subjected to these other people. For example: In an infant-child relationship, from the infant's perspective, the mother is the object, and the infant is the subject. The infant is subjected to the mother. This is reversed if we look at things from the mother's perspective.
  2. Object relations theories tend to focus on the process of a person coming to experience themselves as separate from other people but connected to them through relationships.
  3. Not all objects nor all relationships are equal. Some objects and some relationships are more important than other objects.
  4. Object relations theory focuses on relationships between people being more crucial to personality development and formation than interpsychic forces, such as drives.
  5. Another way to say this would be that we learn how to be who and what we are through being in relationships with other people. The most important others will be our primary caretakers. For better or worse, this early relationship with our caretakers provides the sort of "baseline" or "blueprint" to which other relationships will be compared. Some thinkers, such as Peter Fonagy, have called these relational blueprints "internal working models" or IWMs for short.
  6. People create and then continually revise an inner map of how they relate to other people and how others relate to them. This could be as simple as "I don't get along well with so and so." This map is created out of memories, fantasy (and phantasy).

My take on Object Relations Theories

I think object relations theories get right because relationships are important. Our significant relationships have a massive effect on who we are and what we become over time.

If our relationships are good, if they are not abusive or traumatic, it is far more likely that we will turn out better than if these relationships are abusive and significantly traumaize us. (The Adverse Childhood Experience | ACEs scores matter!)

What I'm more skeptical about is this:

  • The idea that a therapist or analyst (with who you will spend not that much time) can correct for damage done.
  • I think it is a theory that might overplay being satisfying to patients, and if the practitioner is not careful, underplay the value of optimal frustration.

That's in for this podcast lecture:

In the following lecture, I'll discuss specific theorists who produced what we recognize as object relations theories.

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