Literature review: Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory

In reading this book I am responding to the question of can the human exist as an object, outside the physical being.

I have found in this book that the term “object relations” in regards to psychology and psychoanalysis does not in fact refer to objects as we would think about them in the everyday language such as chairs, pens, televisions etc. but rather the focus and subject of a person’s internal perception or desires. This can, I believe, still include physical objects, but the book focuses almost exclusively on the relations between babies and children and “objects” in the outside world, the outside world being anything which exists outside the child’s own body and internal perceptions. These relationships and the dynamics between them, positive and gratifying or destructive and unpleasant, are according to psychoanalytic theory what then forms a child’s personality and establishes the mechanisms they use in order to coordinate future obstacles in adulthood.

While it does not directly relate to the focus of my dissertation, in how humans can establish and reinforce relationships through objects (objects in the literal sense of cups, clothes, gifts etc) it has given me an interesting insight into the idea of humans themselves being seen and treated as objects foreign from ourselves and imbued with meaning and significance which we carry within our own minds.

As with almost all elements of psychoanalytics, the origins of object relations can be traced back to the work or Sigmund Freud. One of Freud’s earliest cases was the treatment of Anna O, whose treatment by a fellow psychologist Josef Breuer after she developed the belief that Breuer was acting inappropriately and making sexual advances towards her. This lead Freud to the theory of transference, in that the perception of an object of focus (in this case Breuer) was not necessarily accurate or corresponded to the actual behaviour of those that object, and that they instead act as a backdrop on which a person (in this case Anna O) can project their internal “psychic representation” onto. This psychic representation of a person is always carried around internally and is subject to many influences which are both conscious and unconscious, as well as then inherently influencing the interaction with the “real” person who has become the object in question, and their perception of the interaction. The book uses the example of a man who has been struggling with anxieties about having wasted years of his life, and whose niece and boyfriend are coming to visit him over the holidays. He spends much of his time preparing for their visit by fastidiously cleaning the house, in anticipation of their critical and punishing attitude towards his home life, feeling shameful about his living conditions and how they will be observed. However, in reality his niece and partner were far from interested in criticising the cleanliness of his home and in fact spent much of their time lazing around the house or staying in bed. This is then met by the uncle with scorn and judgement of his own towards the guests, a direct mirror of the previously imagined scorn that the visitors would show to him.

This relates back to my research in the idea that a relationship between people can exist independently of any interaction with that person, and instead (to borrow a term used by the book) via a psychic representation of that person which is then focused or displaced onto an object. While two people may therefore be sharing in a “psychic relationship” through an object, that is not to say that they are sharing the same perception, and in fact each person’s interpretation and perception of the object and it’s significance may be completely different with very little overlay, other than that it refers to their relationship with the other person.

Frustratingly, the book poses itself many questions which as far as I can tell has failed to answer (I cannot say this conclusively without a more thorough reading of the book in it’s entirety, but I could not find the answers forthcoming).

“How do the characteristics of internal objects relate to those of “real” people, past and present? Is the internal object a representation of the individuals perception of a total relationship with another person or of specific aspects and characteristics of the other? What are the circumstances in which such images become internalized, and which is the mechanism by which they are established as part of the individual’s inner world? What is the connection between these internal representations and subsequent relations with real others in the external world? How do internal objects function within mental life? Are there different types of internal objects? Do different circumstances and mechanisms of internalization lead to different kinds of internal objects?”

These are all questions that I would very much like answers to, and I feel are relevant to my research. However it seems to me that the answers get lost in speculation and comparison between various researchers and studies, whose different approaches all seem to be focused upon child development and specifically the development of sexual drives within a child, as in following on from Freud’s work.

Later in the book while investigating the work of Heinz Kohurt, it links the development of object relations in a child back to the formations as an adult patient. He expresses the theory that an infant views parental figures and other close relationships in early life as being “selfobjects”, as of yet unable to distinguish them from it’s own being and using the selfobject’s experiences and emotions as a basis of its own. Kohurt states that it is through the selfobjects mirroring of the child, or alternatively the child idealising the selfobject it allows the child to create an image of self that is separate from others. This is a process that can happen throughout life, and Kohurt specifically talks about the relationship between patient and psychoanalyst in which the analyst becomes the selfobject of the patient. It is through reflection on the patient’s relationship with the analyst, and in understanding and overcoming their unavoidable failures to fully empathise and understand the patient that they then grow to understand their sense of self and separatedness from the selfobject, and Kohurt theories that the need for self objects is not something that is ever outgrown.


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