What is Object Relations Therapy?
Object Relations is a theory of the human personality developed from the study of the therapist-patient relationship as it reflects the mother-infant dyad. The theory holds that the infant's experience in relationship with the mother, or primary caregiver, is the primary determinant of personality formation and that the infant's need for attachment is the motivating factor in the development of the infantile self. It is an amalgam of the work of British analysts Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, and others of the British Independent group, augmented by that of Melanie Klein and the Kleinian group. Both the Independent and the Kleinian groups have developed theories of personality formation and psychic structure different from Freud's, and different from each other. The Independent group, for example, disagreed with Freud's views about the nature and power of the instincts, while the Kleinian group stayed true to Freud's view of instincts but disagreed about the role of unconscious fantasy in the infant's regulation of instinctual tension. Nevertheless, they can be integrated because of their commonality in focus on the first three years of life and their emphasis on the experience of the mother-infant relationship as a major component of psychic structure formation.
The Internal Object
Object Relations theory and therapy focus on internal objects. An internal object is a piece of psychic structure that formed from the person's experiences with the important caretakers in earlier life. It is captured in the personality through the process of internalization, so that the personality thereafter bears the trace of that earlier relationship. The internal object is neither a memory nor a representation, but is rather an integral part of the self's being. Internal objects become expressed in the individual's choice of, and interactions with, other people (i.e., external objects) in their present life. Internal objects may also be modified through relationships with present external objects (such as the therapist).