Object Relations Theories

Object relations theories are heterogeneous approaches, mainly based on the theories of Melanie Klein, William Fairbairn, and Donald Winnicott. They focus on the infant’s interactional relationship with another person (object) that exists from the very beginning. These pre-Oedipal object relations are regarded as central to the infant’s further psychological development. If they are not successful, they contribute to the development of severe mental illness.

In her central text “Some Theoretical Conclusions Regarding the Emotional Life of the Infant”, Melanie Klein describes the first months of the infant’s life as a time shaped by existential fears. In order to cope with these, the infant makes use of certain defense mechanisms such as the splitting of the self and of objects into good and bad parts (“good” and “bad breast”) and the outward projection of negative parts. Through a good relationship with the primary caregivers (mother), the child learns to cope better with fears and frustrations, to give up the splitting mechanisms, and to deal with ambivalences internally and externally.

An important advancement of the Kleinian object relations theory comes from Wilfred Bion. He describes the function of the mother as a “container”: she “holds” the infant’s unbearable mental states and helps the infant to cope with these tensions and anxieties, which enables their integration into the infantile ego.

Object relations theories have made a significant contribution to the understanding and treatment of paranoid and schizoid conditions in particular. The theory’s intensive engagement with the stages of early object relations is also reflected in its treatment approach: in analyzing the transference relationship between analyst and analysand, it is possible to work on object relations in the here and now.

Melanie Klein (1882, Vienna - 1960, London)

Klein is not only a central founding figure of psychoanalytic object relations theories, which constitute an invaluable enrichment to psychoanalysis today, but she is also one of the pioneers of child analysis. Encouraged by her first training analyst Sándor Ferenczi, Melanie Klein begins to analyze her own children and develops psychoanalytic play therapy as an equivalent to free association in adult analysis. On the invitation of Ernest Jones, Klein moves to London in 1926. Her approaches—which above all assign a central role in psychic development to the early, pre-Oedipal mother-child relationship—bring Klein into conflict with Sigmund Freud’s theories. What’s more, her methods of child analysis are at odds with those of Anna Freud. These differences about the ‘correct’ approach to psychoanalysis culminate in the so-called Controversial Discussions being held in the British Psychoanalytical Society between 1942 and 1944, which finally lead to the establishment of three separate training courses: a Kleinian, a Freudian, and an independent “Middle Group.”

Picture: Melanie Klein, 1957, Courtesy Melanie Klein Trust and Wellcome Collection

Kirkland Vaughans: Object Relations Theories

New York, February 1, 2020

Kirkland C. Vaughans, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and a psychoanalyst in New York City. He is senior adjunct professor of psychology at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies (Adelphi University), Director of the Derner Postgraduate Program in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy, Director of the Derner Hempstead Child Clinic and Adjunct Clinical Professor at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Furthermore, Vaughans is the founding editor of the Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy and co-editor of The Psychology of Black Boys and Adolescents (2014).