Object Relations Theory

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Object relations theory is the idea that the ego-self exists only in relation to other objects, which may be external or internal. The internal objects are internalized versions of external objects, primarily formed from early interactions with the parents. There are three fundamental "affects" that can exist between the self and the other - attachment, frustration, and rejection. These affects are universal emotional states that are major building blocks of the personality. Object relations theory was pioneered in the 1940's and 50's by British psychologists Ronald Fairbairn, D.W. Winnicott, Harry Guntrip, and others.


Freud developed the concept object relation to describe or emphasize that bodily drives satisfy their need through a medium, an object, on a specific locus. The central thesis in Melanie Klein's object relations theory was that objects play a decisive role in the development of a subject and can be either part-objects or whole-objects, i.e. a single organ (a mother's breast) or a whole person (a mother). Consequently both a mother or just the mother's breast can be the locus of satisfaction for a drive. Furthermore, according to traditional psychoanalysis, there are at least two types of drives, the libido (mythical counterpart: Eros), and the death drive (mythical counterpart: Thanatos). Thus, the objects can be receivers of both love and hate, the affective effects of the libido and the death drive.

Until the 1970s, however, few American psychoanalysts were influenced by the school of Melanie Klein, on the one hand, who constituted an opposite polarity to the school of Anna Freud (which dominated American psychoanalysis in 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and was represented in the US by Hartmann, Kris, Loewenstein, Rapaport, Erikson, Jacobson, and Mahler), and, on the other hand, the "middle group" who fell between Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, and was influenced by the British schools of Michael Balint, Donald Winnicott, and Ronald Fairbairn. The strong animosity in England between the school of Anna Freud and that of Melanie Klein was transplanted to the US, where the Anna Freud group dominated totally until the 1970s, when new interpersonal psychoanalysis arose partly from ideas of culturalist psychoanalysis, influenced also by Ego psychology, and partly by British theories which have also entered under the broad terminology of "British object relations theories".

Recent decades in developmental psychological research, for example on the onset of a "theory of mind" in children, has suggested that the formation of mental world is enabled by the infant-parent interpersonal interaction which was the main thesis of British object-relations tradition (e.g. Fairbairn, 1952).

Fairbairn also discovered the psychological condition of dysfunctional interpersonal attachment of abused children to their abusing parents, which is now explained by Stockholm Syndrome as genetically programed neurobiological psychological response to a situation where the victim perceives her or his life (acutely or chronically) depends on their captor's good will.


Fairbairn, W. R. D., (1952). An Object-Relations Theory of the Personality. New York: Basic Books.

Fairbairn, W. R. D., (1952). Endopsychic structure considered in terms of object relationships, London.

See also

fr:Théorie de la relation d'objet he:תאוריית יחסי אובייקט ja:対象関係論 pl:Teoria relacji z obiektem