Object Relations Theory

Object relations theory is based on psychodynamic theory, however, object relation theory de-emphasizes Sigmund Freud’s primary attention given to biological drives (the pleasure principle) and focuses on the influence of early relationships as the primary forming agent of the adult personality.

The division from Freud is significant in nature, diverging from the early attention of biological drives as the primary motivating force of behavior and development. Instead, the shift, starting with a group of British psychoanalysts, suggested that the primary motivation of the child is object seeking rather than drive gratification.

​Object relation theory suggests that our adult relationships, and style of relating to others, is largely shaped by early relationship bonds formed during infancy. A child internalizes images of its earliest relationships, and uses these internalized images as a foundation for all future relationships.

Key Definition:

Object Relations Theory suggests that relationships are the primary forming agents of a child’s personality. The child internalizes external objects, creating a working model of attachment.

John Bowlby, a primary figure in attachment theory, refers to the internalizing of external objects as creating internal working models. Bowlby proposed that “the nature of an infant’s attachment to the parent (or other primary caregiver) will become internalized as a working model of attachment” (Siegel, 2020, Kindle location 2,345).

The Three Factors of Object Relations Theory

The term “object relations,” as used in object relations theory, refers to the dynamic internalized relationship between the self and external objects (others). The mental representation of an object involves three factors:

  • the object as perceived by the self
  • the self in relation to the object
  • the relationship between the self and the object

Once internalized, they remain constant fixtures in our unconscious mind, evaluating and influencing all future relationships. Johnathan Haidt, an American social psychologist, wrote that “​internal working models are fairly stable (though not unchangeable), guiding people in their most important relationships throughout their lives” (2006, Kindle location 2,311).

Otto F. Kernberg, professor of psychiatry at the Cornell University Medical College, defines object relations theory as “the psychoanalytic study of the nature and origin of interpersonal relations, and of the nature and the origin of intrapsychic structures deriving from, fixating, modifying, and reactivating past internalized relations with others in the context of present interpersonal relations” (Kernberg,1976).

Basically, most descriptions of object relations theory refer to the perception of external figures, our relationship to them, and an internalizing of the model. These internalized relationship models then project onto our interpretation of future relationships. N. Gregory Hamilton succinctly explains, “we have intricate relationships within us. They are not static images, but rather, powerful influences on how we feel about ourselves and relate to others” (Hamilton, 1977). Hamilton’s description beautifully encapsulates the essence of this theory in psychoanalytical thought.

Objects in Psychoanalytical Theory

In everyday language, we typically view objects as non-living things. To objectify is to see a living entity as a non-living object. However, in psychoanalytical theory objects can be a loved or hated person, place, thing, or fantasy (Hamilton, 1977). When reading psychoanalytical literature, we must adopt the language to understand the concepts.

Early Theorist and Development of Object Relations Theory

The beginnings of object relations theory can be traced as far back as 1917. Sándor Ferenczi, a close associate of Freud, believed that the persistent traumatic effect of chronic overstimulation, deprivation, or empathic failure during childhood is what causes neurotic, character, borderline and psychotic disorders.

Another associate of Freud, Karl Abraham theorized that the during the oral stage of development, the relationships children have with objects (caretakers) determine their subsequent relationship to reality.

Britain Psychoanalyst Group

However, object theory didn’t begin to take form until a group of psychoanalysts in Britain took hold of the idea, and broke away from many of Freuds original concepts. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, this group was notably led by Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, and Harry Guntrip.

Klein’s object relations theory created conflict among the London psychoanalytical community. A notable split forced a division. Some following Klein and others holding to Anna Freud’s ego psychology.

Ronald Fairbairn

Ronald Fairbairn in 1952 independently formulated his theory of object relations. Fairbairn was one of the theory-builders for the Middle Group of Britain psychoanalysts.  This Independent Group contained analysts who identified with neither the Kleinians nor the Anna Freudians. His published work Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality in 1952 included his theory of object relations.

Fairbairn wrote, “the infant is completely dependent upon its object not only for his existence and physical well being, but also for the satisfaction of his psychological needs” (1952).


While in America, psychoanalysts largely followed the ego psychology of Anna Freud, a notable movement towards object relation theory also took hold. Margaret Mahler made significant contributions to object relations theory through her own theory of separation-individualization. 

Mahler was especially interested in mother-infant duality and carefully documented the impact of early separations of children from their mothers.

Mahler’s work was with children suffering from psychosis. Her experience and research led to a more constructive exploration of severe disturbances in childhood. She emphasized the importance of the environment on the child.

Mahler theorized that children suffering from psychosis experienced a trauma in early relationships that created a derailment of the normal processes whereby self-representations (the representation of one’s self) and object-representations (the representation of a familiar person) become distinct.

Essential Concepts of Object Relations Theory

External objects are people and things in our environment. These are real tangible objects. My computer, my coffee mug, my wife, and my grandchildren are external objects. They exist in reality independent of my thoughts.

However, my wife is at work in the office. My visualization of her is an internal object. All the attributes that I associate with her are internalized concepts that I unconsciously include when I conjure up images of my lovely wife.

Internalized Representations

Our internalized representations of external objects are richly colored in emotion, experience, and beliefs. These internalized representations than reflect on our attitudes during relations with the external object in reality.

Internalization creates an internalized map (mental maps) of external objects. Internalization is a process of incorporating the external world into our complex psychic apparatus already in existence (Kanzer, 1979). Siegel refers to this as integration (2020).

Internalizing a new object, such as a new romantic relationship, is influenced by integrating the new with objects that already exist in the psychic apparatus. The earliest representations have the most impact because everything must integrate with what is already present.

Object Constancy

Object constancy is a phase in child development when child understands that the mother has a separate identity and is an individualized object, separate from the child. Once the child develops object constancy, the child internal representations of the self, the object, and the relationship between the self and object.

Successful internalization provides the child with an image, even when the parent is not present, that provides a sense of safety and confidence. As my young grandson will say, “mommy will be right back.” His simple expression illuminates an internal understanding of object constancy, even in the absence of his mother; and that understanding provides a sense of security. 

Object constancy shares many similar concepts with Mary Ainsworth’s findings through her strange situation experiments and her and John Bowlby’s concepts of a secure base.

Deficiencies in positive internalization and object constancy could possibly lead to a sense of insecurity and low self-esteem issues in adulthood, expressed through heightened separation anxiety and fear of abandonment (Fritscher, 2020).

Object Relations Theory and Psychoanalyst

As previously discussed, object relations theory developed from psychologists and psychoanalysis belonging to the Freudian line. Most never disavowed Freud altogether, they just believed that early relationships played a greater role in child development than biological urges.

​Object relation theory is not a single theory but “refers to a family of theories having a common denominator, namely, the view that personality is structured as a function of early relations with significant others and that subsequent development leads to adaptations and modification of what has been internalized” (Ingram and Lerner, 1992).

What Does an Object Relations Therapist do?

​On the website Good Therapy, the author describes the aim of an object relations therapist as “helping an individual in therapy uncover early mental images that may contribute to any present difficulties in one’s relationships with others and adjust them in ways that may improve interpersonal functioning” (Good Therapy).

​Interferences with normal development of healthy attachments in childhood has been associated with personality disorders, depression, and anxiety. 

Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, known for his research on borderline personality disorder, considers disruptions in object internalization to be one of the primary factors for the mental ailment (Christopher, Bickhard, & Lambeth, 2001). 

Several theorists have tied depression to internalization of early objects. Mahler refers to it in her separation-individuation theory, Klein in the depressive position, Fairbairn in his investigation of the depressive phenomenon, and Winnicott’s view of depression as being the result of relieving one’s mother of suffering (Herbert, et al., 2010).

From the perspective that one of our primary drives is to belong, it is understandable that early trauma related to failure to satisfy relational needs may lead to developmental problems. Psychoanalysts that have integrated the object relations theory into their practice,  address those early fractures in relationships by addressing the internalized images.

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

Object relations theory has a profound influence on the development of current psychological thought. Failures in early relationships have a reciprocal determining influence on the following relationships, continuing to impact and damage self-confidence and security.

The theory, however, does neglect the biological beginnings that a child brings into those early relationships and how biological predispositions impact the relationship, and future wellness. Yes, nature-nurture arguments exist here as well, each contributing to other in complex and mysterious ways.

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Blanck, Gertrude; Blanck, Reuban (2004).   Developmental object relations theory. Clinical Social Work Journal, 15(4), 318-327.

Christopher, J., Bickhard, M., & Lambeth, G. (2001). Otto Kernberg’s Object Relations Theory. Theory & Psychology, 11(5), 687-711.

Fairbairn, Ronald (1952/1994). Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. Routledge; 1st edition.

Fritscher, Lisa (2020). Object Relations Theory and the Mom Factor. Published 12-02-2020. Accessed 11-9-2022.

Haidt, Johnathan (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books; 1st edition.​

Hamilton, N. Gregory (1977). Self and Others: Object Relations Theory in Practice. Jason Aronson, Inc.; First Edition

Herbert, G., McCormack, V., & Callahan, J. (2010). AN INVESTIGATION OF THE OBJECT RELATIONS THEORY OF DEPRESSION. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 27(2), 219-234.

Ingram, D., & Lerner, J. (1992). Horney theory: An object relations theory. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 52(1), 37-44.

Kanzer, M. (1979). Object Relations Theory: An Introduction. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 27(2), 313-325.

Kernberg, Otto F. (1976/1993). Object Relations Theory and Clinical Psychoanalysis (Classical Psychoanalysis and its Applications). Jason Aronson, Inc.; Reprint edition

Siegel, Daniel J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition.

Somerstein, Lynn (2016) Object Relations. Good Therapy. Published 5-9-2016. Accessed 11-1-2022.

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