Mary Madrake, M.A.
There are four main theories within the umbrella theory of psychoanalytic theory. The first of these is drive theory, developed by Sigmund Freud, followed by ego psychology, developed by Anna Freud, then object relations, followed by self psychology, which was developed by Heinz Kohut and expanded by Wolfe and Arlob. Object relations was developed by many theorists and clinicians, such as Melanie Klein, W. D. Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, Margaret Mahler, Edith Jacobson, Otto Kernberg, and Stephen Mitchell. Due to the variety of focus points, there is no single, unified theory of object relations. Freud was the first theorist to use the term object, from this view, an object referred to the target of a drive. However, Freud focused more on innate biological drives impacting the formation of personality while object relations focuses more on the environmental factors, such as early relationships with caregivers. Object relations in this theory refers to the internal representations of self and others, and the relationships between the internalized representations and individuals in the external world. This theory suggests that internalizations of past relationships, including those of the first caregiver, can affect and shape an individual’s interactions with others throughout the lifespan.
There a few important concepts within object relations that are utilized by all object relationalists, which will be defined here. Both self and other representations exist, a self-representation refers to how an individual internally represents the self while the other, or object, representation refers to the inner representation of the person with whom the individual has a relationship with. This representation may be similar or different than the actual object in the external world. An individual may also have a partial or whole representation of an object; a partial representation means the object is split into either good or bad characteristics. This representation indicates that the individual is unable to view the object holistically and must separate it into pleasurable or frustrating qualities. A whole object representation indicates that the individual is able to view the object in its entirety and understand that it may have opposing qualities, such as being both pleasurable and frustrating. The main concept within Ian Suttie’s theory of object relations was that humans have an innate need for companionship and relationship with others, these relationships led to a sense of security and began with the relationship between the child and the primary caregiver. In early life, the infant does not recognize the self as being separate from others and the development of the sense of relatedness to others may be seen as an aspect of maturation. An infant first views its relationship with the caregiver as wholly positive, the caregiver is responsive to the infant’s needs and provides nurturance. As time progresses, the infant then begins to experience this responsiveness as conditional and the caregiver is no longer a fully pleasurable object. This leads the infant to experience frustration and anxiety, which may end in hatred of the object if the frustration is severe and prolonged.
For Suttie, the upset in the relationship between the child and the primary object was the main factor involved in mental illness and the associated symptoms of the disorder. The feelings the individual may have about being unloved or unwanted, as well as the view that the individual’s gift of love towards others is not accepted, can lead to symptoms of mental illness. The psychotherapy process was then utilized to help the individual move past the barriers that became entrenched in childhood of loving others and feeling loved, which would then allow the individual to develop and maintain healthy object relations, which is the goal of psychotherapy.
Neo-Adlerian theory fourteen main assumptions that can be used to compare other theories with Adlerian to determine the similarities and unique aspects of these theories:
- Social embeddedness: refers to the idea that individuals are part of their environments and larger communities and all behaviors can and should be viewed as attempts to belong to these communities In object relations theory, while individuals are influenced by their environments, behavior is more likely caused by internalized representations of past relationships, rather than as an attempt to fulfill the need to belong.
- Positive psychology: Adlerians focus on an individual’s strengths and assets, both those capabilities that are more innate as well as those are developed. In object relations therapy, the focus is more on altering negative internalized objects or creating new internalized objects through the therapeutic alliance.
- Holism: In Adlerian theory, an individual is seen as an indivisible whole, which cannot be split into parts or processes. In object relations, the individual is understood in terms of different structures, such as the id, ego, and superego.
- Teleology: In Adlerian theory, individuals are viewed as striving towards goals, and all behavior has a purpose. In object relations, symptoms are viewed as defense mechanisms to protect against internal and external threats to the ego.
- Creativity: In Adlerian theory, individuals are seen as co-creators of their worlds and the idea of choice is always present. In object relations, individuals also are part of the creation of their worlds, through the internalization of objects, which then impact the relationships individuals have in the external world.
- Subjective perception of phenomenology: In Adlerian theory, the way in which individuals perceive the world, others, and themselves can be more important than objective reality.
- Soft Determinism: In Adlerian theory, causes exist in a probabilistic sense but an individual’s life is not determined by those causes. In object relations theory, anything important in life is overdetermined, meaning there are no direct cause-and-effect relationships in human endeavors.
- Social Field Theory: Adlerian is a social field theory, meaning that it acknowledges that individuals exist within their society and communities and are influenced by their environment and context. Object relations also acknowledges that individuals are influenced by their environmental factors, but places more emphasis on the individual’s internalized objects and representations in psychotherapy.
- Motivation as Striving: In Adlerian theory, life is about movement. Individuals are always attempting to move from a felt minus position to a perceived plus position. For object relationalists, life is about managing conflict. The behavior of an individual is an attempt to manage the conflicts that arise between the internal world of object relations and representations and the external world.
- Idiographic Orientation: Adlerians view individuals from an idiographic lens, meaning they see each individual as distinct and unique from others. Object relations views individuals in a few different ways and may ask the questions of how is the individual the same as other people, how is the individual culturally different from some other people, and how is the individual absolutely unique from all other people.
- Psychology of Use: In Adlerian psychotherapy what a client brings into therapy, their strengths, assets, innate capabilities, is important, but what the client has done and will do with those capabilities is more important. Object relations does not really discuss a psychology of use in its theory.
- Acting “As If”: In Adlerian theory, individuals perceive events and interactions in a certain way based on their lifestyle, these perceptions are then seen by the individual as the way the event or interaction actually occurred. In object relations theory, individuals behave in ways that make sense based on their internalized objects. An individual will be influenced in an interaction by his or her internalized representation of the object, rather than the external object itself.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The self-fulfilling prophecy refers to the phenomenon in which an individual is likely to find that which he or she is searching for. In object relations, individuals are likely to seek out relationships with others than are familiar to them, such as repeating patterns that existed in early relationships with caregivers.
- Optimism: Adlerians hold the belief that an individual can change and become more socially useful in his or her life. Object relationalists hold the belief that, through psychotherapy, an individual may be able to internalize new objects, such as the therapist, that can alter or replace his or her more problematic past internalized objects.
While all theories have unique concepts and phrasing that differ from other theories, many theories are similar in ways that allow for integration. Adlerian theory and object relations theory are both similar and unique, but are compatible in many of their main assumptions in a way that promotes integration of the two theories.
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