I. Overview of Object Relations Theory
Unlike Adler and Jung, who ultimately rejected Freud’s theories, Melanie Klein tried to validate and extend Freud’s ideas within the framework of psychoanalysis. Klein and other object relations theorists have generally sought to extend Freud’s developmental stages downward to the first few months after birth. Most of these theorists have examined the importance of the mother–child relationship.
II. Biography of Melanie Klein
Melanie Klein was born in Vienna in 1892, the youngest and least favored of four children of a struggling physician and his second wife. Her closest childhood friend was an idolized older brother. When this brother died, Melanie was devastated. While still in mourning for her beloved brother, she married Arthur Klein, an engineer and a close friend of her brother. Her marriage, which eventually ended in divorce, produced three children, a daughter and two sons. Klein’s daughter, Melitta, became a psychoanalyst and was one of her mother’s most bitter critics. Klein had neither a Ph.D. nor an M.D. degree, but she became an analyst by being psychoanalyzed and studying psychoanalysis. As a psychoanalyst, she specialized in analyzing children, including her own. In 1927, she moved to London where she practiced until her death in 1960. She never reconciled with her daughter Melitta, who refused to attend her mother’s funeral.
III. Introduction to Object Relations Theory
Object relations theory differs from Freudian theory in at least three ways: (1) it places more emphasis on interpersonal relationships, (2) it stresses the infant’s relationship with the mother rather than the father, and (3) it suggests that people are motivated primarily for human contact rather than for sexual pleasure. The term object in object relations theory refers to any person or part of a person that infants introject onto their psychic structure and then later project onto other people. Thus, an object is something like Freud’s notion of a superego, which children introject. That is, children take into their psychic structure the morals and ideals that they see in their parents.
Klein believed that infants begin life with an inherited predisposition to reduce the anxiety that they experience as a consequence of the clash between the life instinct and the death instinct.
Klein assumed that very young infants possess an active fantasy life, albeit on an unconscious level. Their most basic fantasies are images of the “good” breast and the “bad” breast. Later, these and other unconscious fantasies are shaped by both reality and by inherited predispositions.
Klein agreed with Freud
that drives have an object, but she was more likely to emphasize the child’s
relationship with these objects (parents’ face, hands,
breast, penis, etc.), which she saw as having a life of their own within the child’s fantasy world.
In their attempts to reduce the conflict produced by good and bad images, infants organize their experience into positions, or ways of dealing with both internal and external objects. Although these positions have names that suggest pathology, Klein used them to refer to normal as well as abnormal development.
A. Paranoid-Schizoid Position
The struggles that infants experience with the good breast and the bad breast lead to two separate and opposing feelings: a desire to harbor the breast and a desire to bite or destroy it. To tolerate these two feelings, the ego splits itself by retaining parts of its life and death instincts while projecting other parts onto the breast. It then has a relationship with the ideal breast and the persecutory breast. To control this situation, the infant adopts the paranoid-schizoid position, which is a tendency to see the world as having the same destructive and omnipotent qualities that the infant possesses.
B. Depressive Position
By depressive position, Klein meant the anxiety that infants experience around 6 months of age over losing their mother and yet, at the same time, wanting to destroy her. The depressive position is resolved when infants fantasize that they have made up for their previous transgressions against their mother and also realize that their mother will not abandon them.
VI. Psychic Defense Mechanisms
According to Klein, children adopt various psychic defense mechanisms to protect their ego against anxiety aroused by their own destructive fantasies.
Klein defined introjection as the fantasy of taking into one’s own body the images that one has of an external object, especially the mother’s breast. Infants usually introject good objects as a protection against anxiety, but they also introject bad objects in order to gain control of them.
The fantasy that one’s own feelings and impulses reside within another person is called projection. Again, children project both good and bad images, especially onto their parents.
Infants tolerate good and bad aspects of themselves and of external objects by splitting, or mentally keeping apart, incompatible images. If not carried to extreme, splitting can be beneficial to people because it allows them to like themselves while still recognizing some unlikable qualities.
D. Projective Identification
The psychic defense mechanism in which infants split off unacceptable parts of themselves, project them onto another object, and finally introject them in an altered form is called projective identification. Unlike projection, which exists mostly in fantasy, projective identification takes place in the real world.
After introjecting external objects, infants organize them into a psychologically meaningful framework, a process Klein called internalization.
Internalizations are aided by the early ego’s ability to feel anxiety, to deploy defense mechanisms, and to form object relations in both fantasy and reality. However, a unified ego emerges only after first splitting itself into the two parts: those that deal with the life instinct and those that relate to the death instinct.
Klein believed that the superego emerged much earlier than Freud had held. To her, the superego preceded rather than followed the Oedipus complex. Klein also saw the superego as being quite harsh and cruel.
C. Oedipus Complex
Again, Klein’s conception of the Oedipus complex differed from Freud’s. First, she believed that the Oedipus complex begins during the first few months of life, then reaches its zenith during the genital stage, at about age 3 or 4, or the same time that Freud had suggested it began. Second, Klein held that much of the Oedipus complex is based on children’s fear that their parents will seek revenge against them for their fantasy of emptying the parent’s body. Third, Klein believed that, for healthy development, children should retain positive feelings for both parents during the Oedipal years.
1. Male Oedipal Development
According to Klein, the little boy adopts a “feminine” position very early in life and has no fear of being castrated as punishment for his sexual feelings for his mother. Later, he projects his destructive drive onto his father, whom he fears will bite or castrate him. The male Oedipus complex is resolved when the boy establishes good relations with both parents.
2. Female Oedipal Development
The little girl also adopts a “feminine” position toward both parents quite early in life. She has a positive feeling both for her mother’s breast and for her father’s penis, which she believes will feed her with babies. Sometimes the girl develops hostility toward her mother, whom she fears will retaliate against her and rob her of her babies, but, in most cases, the female Oedipus complex is resolved without any jealousy toward the mother.
VIII. Later Views on Object Relations
A number of other theorists have expanded and altered Klein’s theory of object relations. Notable among them are Margaret Mahler, Heinz Kohut, Otto Kernberg, and John Bowlby.
A. Margaret Mahler’s View
Mahler, a native of Hungary who practiced psychoanalysis in both Vienna and New York, developed her theory of object relations from careful observations of infants as they bonded with their mothers during their first 3 years of life. In their progress toward achieving a sense of identity, children pass through a series of three major developmental stages. First is normal autism, which covers the first 3 or 4 weeks of life. During this time, infants satisfy their needs within the all-powerful protective orbit of their mother’s care and without an awareness of any other person. Second is normal symbiosis, when infants behave as if they and their mother were an omnipotent, symbiotic unit. Third is separation-individuation, which spans the time from about 4 months until about 3 years. During this time, children become psychologically separated from their mothers and achieve individuation, or a sense of personal identity.
B. Heinz Kohut’s View
Like Kernberg, Kohut was a native of Vienna, but he spent most of his professional life in the United States. More than any of the other object relations theorists, he emphasized the development of the self. In caring for infants’ physical and psychological needs, adults treat them as if they had a sense of self. The parents’ behaviors and attitudes then help children form a sense of self that gives unity and consistency to their experiences.
C. Otto Kernberg’s View
Kernberg, a native of
Vienna, has spent most of his professional career in the United States. Like
Freud, his theories of infantile development have been built mostly on his
clinical experiences with older patients. Kernberg believed that the key to
understanding personality is the mother–child relationship. Children who
experience a healthy relationship with their mother develop an integrated ego,
a punitive superego, a stable self-concept, and satisfying interpersonal
relations. In contrast, children who have poor relations with their mother will
have difficulty integrating their ego and may suffer from some form of
D. John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory
John Bowlby, a physician and native of England, received training in child psychiatry from Melanie Klein. Like other object relations theorists, Bowlby believed that early childhood attachments to parents have a considerable influence on later personality development. By studying human and other primate infants, Bowlby observed three stages of separation anxiety. First, an infant will protest; second, it shows apathy and despair, and finally, the human infant will become emotionally detached from other people, including the primary caregiver. Children who experience this third stage lack warmth and emotion in their later relationships. Bowlby influenced Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist who has developed techniques for measuring attachment style.
The goal of Kleinian psychotherapy was to reduce depressive anxieties and persecutory fears and to lessen the harshness of internalized objects. To do this, Klein encouraged patients to re-experience early fantasies, while she pointed out the differences between reality and fantasy as well as between conscious and unconscious wishes. The understanding that patients gained from this procedure allowed them to feel less persecuted by internalized objects and to project previously frightening internal objects onto objects in the external world.
X. Related Research
Object relations theories stress the importance of early bonding, and recent research in this area has focused on attachment theory and interpersonal relationships of both children and adults.
A. Attachment Theory and Children’s Object Relationships
Kirsh and Cassidy (1997) found that children with secure attachment, compared with children with insecure attachment, have both better attention and better memory. Other research (Fury, Carlson, & Sroufe, 1997) suggests that securely attached young children grow up to become adolescents who feel comfortable in friendship groups that allowed new members to easily become part of those groups. Still other studies (Fury et al., 1997) have shown that 8- and 9-year-old children who were securely attached during infancy produced family drawings that demonstrated interpersonal security.
B. Attachment Theory and Adult Relationships
Research with adults suggests that those with secure attachments experience more trust, closeness, and positive emotions than do adults with other attachment styles. Other research with college students has found that those with secure relationships had less hostility and were more independent than students with avoidant or ambivalent relationships.
XI. Critique of Object Relations Theory
Object relations theory shares with Freudian theory an inability to be either falsified or verified through empirical research; that is, findings consistent with the theory can also be explained by some other model. Nevertheless, some clinicians regard the theory as being a useful guide to action and as possessing substantial internal consistency. However, the theory must be rated low on parsimony and on its ability to organize knowledge and to generate research.
XII. Concept of Humanity
relations theorists see personality as being a product of the early
mother–child relationship, and thus they stress determinism over free choice.
The powerful influence of early childhood also gives these theories a low rating
on uniqueness and high ratings on causality, unconscious forces, and social influences. Klein and other object relations theorists rate average on optimism versus pessimism.