Object Relations Theory

Object relations theory grew out of the psychodynamic approach. British psychologists Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, Harry Guntrip, and Scott Stuart extended object relations theory during the 1940s and 1950s.

According to the theory, an individual’s childhood experiences moulds how they relate to others and their environment. The images of people and events from childhood form ‘objects’ in the unconscious. The ‘objects’ which we carry with us influence our social relationships and interactions. It states that the self and personality develop only in relation to something else and not in isolation. This theory holds value to date because our personality is shaped not in a vacuum but by our childhood experiences, relationships we develop, and social interactions.

Objects are significant others to whom the individual relates, often the mother or primary caregiver. The key emphasis is on the infant’s relationship with the mother determining their personality later in life. These mental representations of early relations influence the growth and personality of the child.

An example: ‘my mother feeds me when I am hungry, so she is good’ (object), ‘she takes care of me means I am good’ (self in relation to the object), and ‘I love my mother’  (the relation).

The relevance of this theory can be seen in the absence of primary caregivers, especially the mother, during the initial years can create disturbed personality, anxiety, strained relationships in the child’s future years. If the care is adequate (as viewed by the child), children can form their true or best selves.