Basic InformationMore InformationLatest NewsQuestions and AnswersLinksBook Reviews
Related Topics

Psychological Testing
Mental Disorders
Mental Health Professions
Treatments & Interventions

Object Relations Theory 101: All the World's a Stage

Michael W. Adamowicz, LICSW

Today, we have a beginner's introduction to object relations theory.

theater stageRight from the start, let me acknowledge that I have difficulty writing about object relations theory in a simple, conversational style. For me, it is like conveying the experience of a warm sunny day while using the language of quantum field theory.

To try to save us all some hardship with this topic, I will use a metaphor. Granted this metaphor is limited. For a more technical and historical explanation of object relations theory, you can start with a nice review by Sam Vaknin, Ph.D. Scroll down the page a bit and start at "XV. Narcissism and Schizoid Disorders - Melanie Klein." For further information, you can also read Wikipedia's entry for object relations theory.

Imagine a large amphitheatre. On the stage is Robert. More accurately, Robert's ego is on the stage. Behind him, instead of scenery and curtains, is the real world where he interacts with other real people. In front of him, the seats are occupied by all of the people with whom he has had significant experiences in the past. These are not the actual persons but are his representations of them. For example, his first grade teacher actually may have cared deeply for him and been a good teacher. However, in Robert's experience, she was scary and hard to please. Therefore, his representation of her is frightening. This audience consists of the memories of his life.

To his left are the warm, loving people. It is from them that Robert gets self-soothing, guidance, support, etc. In the center are neutral figures. On the right is where the harsh, critical, angry and destructive persons sit.

To complicate things a bit more, the same person can have multiple representations. Robert's mother can be seated on the left based on the time when she calmed him after a nightmare. But she can also occupy a seat on the right. This would be an unintegrated memory of the time that she wrongly accused him of a theft and punished him unjustly.

Depending on what is happening between Robert and the real world, the audience can shift. Some people will move their seat to the other side, some stay where they are, some may even leave the theater.

In a reciprocal fashion, and this is important, how the audience is arranged in the seats influences the way that Robert interacts with the real world and stores new memories of his experience.

Sometimes the audience is polite and accepting. They don't interrupt Robert. They wait for him to address them or to recall them in memory. Consider this as a Zen moment. His object relations are in alignment with his experience of the world and criticism is suspended.

Other times, the audience can be intrusive. Out of the blue, a rotten tomato is thrown at Robert's head. A torrent of unexpectedly harsh criticisms of his performance interrupts his dealings with the real world. Or, perhaps, a gentle, soothing sense of acceptance and love sweeps over him as he reads a novel late at night.

On still other occasions, the audience may start arguing among themselves.

Now the members of the audience may not all be exactly human. Granted, the most advanced of them look completely human. These patrons are well known to Robert and he sees them as reliable and fairly predictable. He has known them through good times and bad. Robert knows these patrons well. He sees them as reliable and fairly predictable.

Some in the audience look only mostly human. Their features are somehow not quite fully developed. Robert only knows one side of them. This part of the crowd can be confusing and unpredictable to Robert.

Then we have gooey, blob-like creatures. They are the least advanced persons in attendance. These are the raw, primitive introjects. Some are scarier than Frankenstein. Others are purely and exquisitely pleasurable and intoxicating. Even the gratifying blobs can be dangerous, though. There is a threat that they can consume you in their gooeyness. (Think of the allure of an urge to regress back to being a coddled, dependent child in times of high conflict.)

In our metaphor, the more psychologically mature a person becomes, then the more that the audience will look fully human. It is likely that the psychologically mature person will not have multiple representations of significant persons. Instead, the mature person will have integrated the various experiences with, say, his mother into a coherent whole.

If Robert regresses or if a person is psychologically immature, then the audience begins to look more like the gooey blobs. There will be multiple representations of the same person, split off from each other. The blobs can unexpectedly shift positions depending on what is happening either in the real world or in the audience itself.

This should be adequate for our current purposes. There are many elements left out of this metaphor. For instance, I did not mention the drives interacting with the audience. Nor did I get into how object relations mesh with the various structures of the mind, e.g., the superego or the id. (Hints: gooey blobs are raw expressions of the drives in the id, but some might also be in the superego, and usually they are part object (as opposed to whole object) representations. Well-formed humans are in the superego or ego ideal. The left side is fueled by the libido and the right side is powered by the aggressive drive. Those in the middle either are decathected or are unrelated to the current experience with the world.) As I said, this stuff gets complicated fast. For now, we'll leave this metaphor as it stands.

For a quick visual reference, I made a pictorial representation of this metaphor:

object relations view


In the next post, I will move on to anaclitic depressions.