What are these 'Object Relations' you keep talking about?

So what are Object Relations anyway?

According to Allan G. Frankland, the term Object Relations can initially seem somewhat confusing.  The relations part is easy enough to understand - it has to do with the patient's relationships - with him/herself and with others.  But what is meant by the term object?  And why is it called object rather than just human relations?

Let's try to address this from an Object Relations Theory perspective, and Attachment Theory perspective

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Originally derived from Freud’s drive theory, the term “object” continues to be used frequently, universally and flexibly throughout psychoanalytic literature that over time, the meaning of object has lost its specificity (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983).  The term is used to convey the fact that sometimes people do not perceive of others as they really are, but rather as they imagine them to be - "it is as if they are having a relationship with a two-dimensional fantasy object/person in their minds, rather than with a multidimentional real person" (Frankland, 2010).  A real person has a mixture of both desirable and less desirable qualities.  A fantasy object may be inaccurately viewed as "all good" or "all bad".  It can even oscillate rapidly between the two, depending on the circumstances.  This fantasy object may be viewed as capable of fulfilling all of the patient's wants and needs (which can be thought of as seductive to the patient), while simultaneously appearing to withhold this goodness from the patient (which can be seen as rejecting).  Thus, the object (often called the bad object) can be viewed as both seductive and rejecting, often at the same time.  Each person's particular object fantasy prototypes are influenced by the tapestry of emotionally intense "good" and "bad" experiences that occur very early in life, even within the first year (Kernberg, 1992).

How do these problems develop in the first place?

Otto Kernberg, one of the modern pioneers of object relations theory, has postulated that children develop patterns in their views of themselves and others in response to affectively intense early experiences, typically involving the primary caregiver (Kernberg, 1992).  These intense experiences may involve feelings of love or hate in response to satiation or deprivation of the child's needs by the caregiver.  These intense early experiences are believed to influence the child's developing relationship templates through a type of emotional/experiential imprinting (Kernberg, 1984).  It is believed that these extreme, affectively laden "all good" or "all bad" experiences can become overrepresented in the child's developing conceptualisation of self and others.  They reflect extreme and unusual situations, rather than day-to-day uneventful life.  When the associated extreme, polarised views of self and others are carried forward into future relationships, distorted perceptions can result.  The person can thereby develop a tendency to view herself and/or others as all good or all bad and experience the corresponding affects (intense love or hate) that were connected to the formative early experiences.  

From an attachment perspective, the emphasis is to understand the complex transformation of external objects to internalised object representation, in this case, the formation of internal working models (IWMs) of self and others.  An attachment object may take the form of a person, but may just as well have a wide range of boundless and malleable attributes, describing something physical and concrete, but may also be something intangible. 

Aligned with the Winnicottian concept of the transitional object as the first treasured possession (Stevenson, 1954; Winnicott, 1953), it is generally agreed that the infant’s first object is most likely its mother but may be supplemented by attachments to a handful of other specific persons (Ainsworth, 1969).  Defined as “a symbol of the mother that is intermediate between internal and external reality for the infant” (Passman, 1987, p. 825), the use of transitional objects is considered normal and beneficial to healthy development (e.g., Busch, 1974; Litt, 1981; Newson, Newson, & Mahalski, 1982)Rudhe and Ekecrantz (1974) described this as an enduring “emotional dependence on a special object, which has a soothing and/ or comforting effect primarily at bedtime and times of anxiety, illness, etc.” (p. 382), and some researchers have concluded that the absence of such attachments may predict later psychopathology (Horton, Louy, & Coppolillo, 1974; Lobel, 1981).  Given attachment theory’s emphasis on a relational model, it posits that close interpersonal relationships provide people with psychological security across the lifespan.  Over the course of development, people broaden their source of security from their parents to a network of close others, including friends and romantic partners (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016).  However, there are those who have experienced painful, rejecting, and shaming relationships, which form the origins of their self-regulating deficits (Flores, 2004).  It is conceivable that such individuals, in turn, have tremendous difficulty seeking others to obtain what they need or have never received.

Psychological dependence/structure/object relations from this perspective is hypothesised as the result of unmet developmental needs, which leave certain individuals with an injured, fragmented self, vulnerable to struggles with regulating affect, and in many cases, unable to identify what it is they feel (Stasiewicz, et al., 2012).  According to Flores (2004), these individuals are unable to draw on their own internal resources as there are none, and they remain in constant need (or "object hunger", p. 83) of self-regulating resources provided externally.  Deprivation of attachment needs and thus object hunger, leaves these individuals with unrealistic and intolerable affect that are disturbing to self and others (Flores, 2004).  Consequently, their strong and overpowering needs for human responsiveness may be experienced as insatiable, and compound their feelings of shame and be frightened by their own neediness.  People whose attachment figures consistently reject or dismiss them in times of need may learn that relying on others is not an effective way to manage distress.  Recent research shows that when people perceive that close others are unreliable, they may seek alternative, non-social sources of security, such as: security blankets (Passman, 1987); an omnipotent god (Granqvist, 2006; Kirkpatrick, 2005); and obsessive-compulsive hoarding of inanimate objects (Frost, Hartl, Christian, & Williams, 1995; Grisham, et al., 2009; Nedelisky & Steele, 2009).  Indirect evidence that object attachment serve a compensatory function comes from studies showing that individuals continue to derive psychological security from objects well into adulthood (Bachar, Canetti, Galilee-Weisstub, Kaplan-DeNour, & Shalev, 1998; Erkolahti & Nyström, 2009), and such object attachment is positively associated with a lack of close interpersonal attachment (Nedelisky & Steele, 2009).  

Addressing the internalisation of the wholly good or wholly bad object

So how does therapy help address distorted perpections of self and others, and the relationship difficulties that can ensue?  This occurs by providing the patient with a new relationship experience that helps her to see herself and others more realistically, that is, as a whole, being internally multifaceted, rather than simply as reflections of inaccurate internal fantasies.  As a therapist, we use our experience of the therapeutic relationship in the here and now, to guide and refine our understanding of the difficulties the patient has in relation to herself and others.  Often, our emotional reactions provide us with some of the most important information about what is going on in the therapeutic relationship.  As a result, this style of therapy can be emotionally charged for both patient and therapist.  

You may be wondering how the therapist decides to say in all the different situations that can arise in therapy.  The good news is that similar themes tend to arise repeatedly.  Once we understand what is going on between the patient and ourselves, we can then consider options for how to proceed.  The most important thing to understand at this point, however, is that the therapeutic relationship itself is the template upon which change occurs in this style of therapy.  In order to use that relationship to make helpful interventions, we must carefully observe our patients and ourselves.  This requires thoughtful monitoring of one's emotional reaction to what is taking place.  Ultimately, the patient may learn to see that their therapist is not wholly good or wholly bad, (e.g., "always being there for me", or "the bastard was never there when I needed him"), that the therapist is more a reflection of reality (i.e., "he can't always be there for me", "there are some things I don't like about him, but he helps me feel alright when I need help at times").  This purpose of this is to assist patients to integrate these wholly good and wholly bad parts into more realistic terms and expectations.  This translates what is experienced in the therapeutic milieu into their internal object structure, and thus may be consciously applied in the patient's interpersonal relationships.