Object Relations Theory

Other changes to Freud' s original ideas have been so sweeping that one new approach drops the term "analytic" altogether: object relations theory . Recall that Freud emphasized sexuality in the development of personality . He viewed the adult personality as the result of how people accommodate the inevitable conflicts between their desires for sexual pleasure from various body parts and the constraints of parents, social institutions, and civilized society . Freud' s emphasis on sexuality has been completely rethought by recent generations of psychoanalysts. This new movement—object relations theory—emphasizes social relationships and their origins in childhood.

Consider the oedipal phase of development. Freud stressed the sexual attraction for the parent of the opposite sex, and the accompanying fear , rage, anger, and jealousy toward the parent of the same sex. Psychoanalysts after Freud looked at the same childhood situation and saw , instead, the importance of forming social relationships to the developing personality . Later analysts emphasized not sexuality but, instead, the development of meaningful social relationships as the task that occurs at this stage of development. After all, the first persons with whom we have a meaningful rela tionship are our parents.

Although object relations theory has several versions, which dif fer from each other in emphasis, all the versions have at their core a set of basic assumptions. One assumption is that the internal wishes, desires, and urges of the child are not as important as his or her developing relationships with significant external others, particularl parents. A second assumption is that the others, particularly the mother , become internalized by the child in the form of mental objects. The child creates an unconscious mental representation of the mother . The child, thus, has an unconscious "mother" within, to whom he or she can relate. This allows the child to have a relationship with this internalized object, even in the absence of the real mother—hence the term object relations theory.

The relationship object the child internalizes is based on his or her developing relationship with the mother . If things are going well between the mother and the infant, the infant internalizes a caring, nurturant, trustworthy mother object. This image then forms the fundamentals for how children come to view others with whom they develop subsequent relationships. If the child internalizes a mother object who is not trustworthy, perhaps because the real mother has left the child alone too often or has not fed the child regularly, then he or she might have dif ficulty learning to trus other people later in life. The first social attachments that the infant develops for the templates for all meaningful relationships in the future. This is consistent with the classic psychoanalytic idea that the "child is father to the man," in the sense that what develops in childhood determines the outcomes in adulthood. However , in the neo-analytic case, it is early childhood experience with caregivers, especially attachment to the primary caregiver, that determines adult personality .

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