Melanie Klein’s Object Relations Theory

Summary Outline

  1. Overview of Object Relations Theory

Many personality theorists have accepted some of Freud’s basic assumptions while rejecting others.  One approach to extending psychodynamic theory has been the object relations theories of Melanie Klein and others. Unlike Jung and Adler who came to reject Freud’s ideas, Klein tried to validate Freud’s theories.  In essence, Klein extended Freud’s developmental stages downward to the first 4 to 6 months after birth.


  1. Biography of Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein was born in Vienna in 1892, the youngest of four children.  She had neither a PhD nor an MD degree but became an analyst by being psychoanalyzed.  As an analyst, she specialized in working with young children.  In 1927, she moved to London where she practiced until her death in 1960.


III.       Introduction to Object Relations Theory

            Object relations theory differs from Freudian theory in three important ways: (1) it places more emphasis on interpersonal relationships, (2) it stresses the infant’s relationship with the mother rather than the father, and (3) it suggests that people are motivated primarily for human contact rather than for sexual pleasure.  The term object in object relations theory refers to any person or part of a person that infants introject, or take into their psychic structure and then later project onto other people.


  1. Psychic Life of the Infant

Klein believed that infants begin life with an inherited predisposition to reduce the anxiety that they experience as a consequence of the clash between the life instinct and the death instinct.

  1. Fantasies

Klein assumed that very young infants possess an active, unconscious fantasy life. Their most basic fantasies are images of the “good” breast and the “bad” breast.

  1. Objects

Klein agreed with Freud that drives have an object, but she was more likely to emphasize the child’s relationship with these objects (parents’ face, hands, breast, penis, etc.), which she saw as having a life of their own within the child’s fantasy world.

  1. Positions

In their attempts to reduce the conflict produced by good and bad images, infants organize their experience into positions, or ways of dealing with both internal and external objects.

  1. Paranoid-Schizoid Position

The struggles that infants experience with the good breast and the bad breast lead to two separate and opposing feelings—a desire to harbor the breast and a desire to bite or destroy it.  To tolerate these two feelings, the ego splits itself by retaining parts of its life and death instincts while projecting other parts onto the breast.  It then has a relationship with the ideal breast and the persecutory breast.  To control this situation, infants adopt the paranoid-schizoid position, which is a tendency to see the world as having both destructive and omnipotent qualities.

  1. Depressive Position

By depressive position, Klein meant the anxiety that infants experience around 6 months of age over losing their mother and yet, at the same time, wanting to destroy her.  The depressive position is resolved when infants fantasize that they have made up for their previous transgressions against their mother and also realize that their mother will not abandon them.


  1. Psychic Defense Mechanisms

According to Klein, children adopt various psychic defense mechanisms to protect their egos against anxiety aroused by their own destructive fantasies.

  1. Introjection

Klein defined introjection as the fantasy of taking into one’s own body the images that one has of an external object, especially the mother’s breast.  Infants usually introject good objects as a protection against anxiety, but they also introject bad objects in order to gain control of them.

  1. Projection

The fantasy that one’s own feelings and impulses reside within another person is called projection.  Children project both good and bad images, especially onto their parents.

  1. Splitting

Infants tolerate good and bad aspects of themselves and of external objects by splitting, or mentally keeping apart, incompatible images. Splitting can be beneficial to both children and adults, because it allows them to like themselves while still recognizing some unlikable qualities.

  1. Projective Identification

Projective identification is the psychic defense mechanism whereby infants split off unacceptable parts of themselves, project them onto another object, and finally introject them in an altered form.


VII.     Internalizations

After introjecting external objects, infants organize them into a psychologically meaningful framework, a process that Klein called internalization.




  1. Ego

Internalizations are aided by the early ego’s ability to feel anxiety, to use defense mechanisms, and to form object relations in both fantasy and reality.  However, a unified ego emerges only after first splitting itself into the two parts—those that deal with the life instinct and those that relate to the death instinct.

  1. Superego

Klein believed that the superego emerged much earlier than Freud had held.  To her, the superego preceded rather than followed the Oedipus complex.  Klein also saw the superego as being quite harsh and cruel.

  1. Oedipus Complex

Klein believed that the Oedipus complex begins during the first few months of life, then reaches its zenith during the genital stage, at about 3 or 4 years of age—the same time that Freud had suggested it began.  Klein also believed that much of the Oedipus complex is based on children’s fear that their parents will seek revenge against them for their fantasy of emptying the parent’s body.  For healthy development during the Oedipal years, children should retain positive feelings for each parent.

According to Klein, the little boy adopts a “feminine” position very early in life and has no fear of being castrated as punishment for his sexual feelings toward his mother.  Later, he projects his destructive drive onto his father, whom he fears will bite or castrate him.  The male Oedipus complex is resolved when the boy establishes good relations with both parents.

The little girl also adopts a “feminine” position toward both parents quite early in life.  She has a positive feeling for both her mother’s breast and her father’s penis, which she believes will feed her with babies.  Sometimes the girl develops hostility toward her mother, whom she fears will retaliate against her and rob her of her babies, but in most cases, the female Oedipus complex is resolved without any jealousy toward the mother.


VIII.    Later Views of Object Relations

A number of other theorists have expanded and altered Klein’s theory of object relations.  Notable among them are Margaret Mahler, Heinz Kohut, John Bowlby. and Mary Ainsworth.

  1. Margaret Mahler’s View

Mahler, a native of Hungary who practiced psychoanalysis in both Vienna and New York, developed her theory of object relations from careful observations of infants as they bonded with their mothers during their first 3 years of life.  In their progress toward achieving a sense of identity, children pass through a series of three major developmental stages.  First is normal autism, which covers the first 3 to 4 weeks of life, a time when infants satisfy their needs within the all-powerful protective orbit of their mother’s care.  Second is normal symbiosis, when infants behave as if they and their mother were an omnipotent, symbiotic unit.  Third is separation-individuation, from about 4 months until about 3 years, a time when children are becoming psychologically separated from their mothers and achieving individuation, or a sense of personal identity.

  1. Heinz Kohut’s View

Kohut was a native of Vienna who spent most of his professional life in the United States.  More than any of the other object relations theorists, Kohut emphasized the development of the self.  In caring for their physical and psychological needs, adults treat infants as if they had a sense of self.  The parents’ behaviors and attitudes eventually help children form a sense of self that gives unity and consistency to their experiences.

  1. John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Bowlby, a native of England, received training in child psychiatry from Melanie Klein.  By studying human and other primate infants, Bowlby observed three stages of separation anxiety: (1) protest, (2) apathy and despair, and (3) emotional detachment from people, including the primary caregiver.  Children who reach the third stage of separation anxiety lack warmth and emotion in their later relationships.

  1. Mary Ainsworth and the Strange Situation

Mary Ainsworth was born in Ohio in 1919 and died in 1999.  She and her colleagues developed a technique called the Strange Situation for measuring one of three the types of attachment styles—secure attachment, anxious-resistant attachment, and anxious-avoidant attachment.


  1. Psychotherapy

The goal of Klein’s therapy was to reduce depressive anxieties and persecutory fears and to lessen the harshness of internalized objects.  To do this, Klein encouraged patients to reexperience early fantasies and pointed out the differences between conscious and unconscious wishes.


  1. Related Research

Research on object relations has included a variety of topics, including eating disorders and adult relationships.  One study of both topics was conducted by Smolak and Levine (1993) who found that bulimia was associated with detachment from parents, whereas anorexia was associated with high levels of guilt and conflict over separation from parents.  More recently, Steven Huprich and colleges (Huprich, Stepp, Graham, & Johnson, 2004) found that both men and women who were insecurely attached and self-focused (egocentric) had greater difficulty in controlling their compulsive eating than did those who were more securely attached and less self-focused. Attachment theory was originally conceptualized by John Bowlby, who emphasized the relationship between parent and child.  Since the 1980s, researchers have begun to examine systematically the attachment relationships in adults, especially in romantic relationships.  The usefulness of attachment theory was investigated in a classic study by Cindy Hazan and Phil Shaver (1987).  These researchers found that people with secure early attachments experienced more trust, closeness, and positive emotions in their adult love relationships than did other people.  Steven Rholes and colleagues found that as they predicted, avoidant individuals do not seek out additional information about their romantic partners’ intimate feelings and dreams, and anxious individuals seek more information about their partners’ intimacy-related issues and goals for the future (Rholes, Simpson, Tran, Martin, & Friedman, 2007).  Rivka Davidovitz and others also examined attachment style in leader-follower relationships, specifically military officers and their soldiers (Davidovitz, Mikulincer, Shaver, Izsak, & Popper, 2007; Popper & Mayseless, 2003).  They found units with officers who had an avoidant attachment style to be less cohesive, and their soldiers reported lower psychological well-being than members of other units.  Anxiously attached officers’ units rated low on instrumental functioning, but high on socioemotional functioning.  Recent research shows that attachment theory is important to understanding a wide range of adult relationships.




  1. Critique of Object Relations Theory

Object relations theory shares with Freudian theory an inability to be either falsified or verified through empirical research.  Nevertheless, some clinicians regard the theory as being a useful guide to action and as possessing substantial internal consistency.  However, the theory must be rated low on parsimony and also low on its ability to organize knowledge and to generate research.


XII.     Concept of Humanity

Object relations theorists see personality as being a product of the early mother-child relationship, and thus they stress determinism over free choice.  The powerful influence of early childhood also gives these theories a low rating on uniqueness, a very high rating on social influences, and high ratings on causality and unconscious forces.  Klein and other object relations theorists rate average on optimism versus pessimism.


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