Object relations theory marks a crucial development in the history of psychoanalytic thought. It is the point of breakthrough where Freud’s early model of “energy” and “force” becomes transformed into a psychology of attachment, relationships and connection. From this early theoretical point, Freud begins to build a new order of theory and practice that allow for the integration of mind, imagination and emotion. This new approach depicts in an unusually alive and vital way the “architecture” of the mind and the unconscious and the ways the mind is structuralized through interactions between the self and significant others.
Through identification and projection the individual, from the very earliest moments of life including the pre-natal, begins to “create” mind and the core of structures and tendencies that enables the individual to begin to make use of the chaos and rush of experience, fantasy, emotion and thought. The structures of the self are correspondingly established in the couple, the group and the institution. The rich tapestry of mind is built upon the “internalized objects” of life and their transformation throughout the life cycle. The ego and the object are inextricably bound together in a series of complementary, interlocking system of dynamic forces that provides solidity to the personality and creativity and transformational energy to the self.
The internal world becomes the essence of the transference and counter-transference that gives the treatment experience its grounding, and permits of the entry into the depth of human unconscious. Object relations theory offers a unique approach where the realities of the body, mind and collective may be woven together so that the forces of integration and those of dis-integration may be approached with an ever greater level of empathy and sophistication.
The growth of the analytic study of mind has produced many theories, approaches and ideas beyond Freud. Melanie Klein, Wilfred Bion, D.W. Winnicott, Heinz Kohut, Otto Kernberg, James Grotstein and Thomas Ogden are among the many theorists and clinicians whose contributions are valued in the modern study of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.
Some benefits associated with studying object relations theory:
- The appreciation of the structures of the ego, super-ego and ego-ideal provides a more dynamic “picture” of the forces acting on the individual, couple and group.
- Working with the most elemental and primary forms of human experience and fantasy enables a more sophisticated and robust tracking of the transference as well as the counter-transference. The “primitive edge of experience” enables the therapist to appreciate the true depth of the human personality.
- An increased awareness of the ways in which attachment, aggression, affection, trauma and narcissism are contained and interwoven helps to support the therapist in the appreciating and sustaining the burdens of the working through process.
- Addresses the problem of loss, absence and mourning in new and dynamic ways. Helps therapists understand the complex, intricate and painful challenges of metabolizing loss and transforming deficits into new psychic structures and potentialities. Places resistance into a new light that detoxifies the challenge of working with the “negative.”
- Affective based learning enables the therapist to be a more durable “container” for the many types and levels of emotion, fantasy and ideation. Creativity becomes a central mode of appreciating the unique patterns emerging from the human unconscious.