Development Theory

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Child Development, 1969, 40, 969-1025

OBJECT RELATIONS, DEPENDENCY, AND
ATTACHMENT: A THEORETICAL REVIEW OF THE
INFANT-MOTHER RELATIONSHIP
MARY D. SALTER AINSWORTH
Johns Hopkins University
3 theoretical approaches to the origin and development o f the infant-mother relationship are reviewed: psychoanalytic theories of object relations, social learning theories of dependency (and attachment), and an ethologically oriented theory o f attachment. "Object relations," "dependency," and "attachment," although overlapping, are seen to differ substantially. Among the concepts in regard to which there are significant inter-theoretical differences, the following are discussed: genetic "biases," reinforcement as compared with activation and termination of behavioral systems and with feedback, strength o f attachment behavior versus strength of attachment, inner representation of the object, intra-organismic and environmental conditions of behavioral activation, and the role of intra-organismic organization and structure. Finally, the relation between theory and research methods is considered. Three terms have been commonly used to characterize the infant's relationship with his mother: "object relations," "dependency," and "attachment." Although they overlap somewhat in their connotations, these terms are not synonymous. Each is more or less closely tied to a distinctive theoretical formulation of the origin and development of early interpersonal relations.

The concept of object relations stems from psychoanalytic instinct theory. The "object" of an instinct is the agent through which the instinctual aim is achieved, and the agent is usually conceived as being another person. It is generally agreed that the infant's first object is his mother. The origin of object relations lies in the first year of life, and most, although not all, psychoanalysts have viewed the infant's initial relationship with his mother as being essentially oral in nature. The major theoretical division, however, is between those who hold that there are at least prototypical object relations from the beginning and those who hold that "true" object relations grow out of and supplant the infant's earlier dependency relationship with his mother.

Although the term dependency has been used by some psychoanalysts to characterize the infant's preobjectal relations, it is especially linked to social learning theories. These theories follow the psychoanalytic lead in conceiving the origin of interpersonal relations to lie in the infant's dependence on his mother. (Although "dependency" and "dependence" may be used interchangeably, "dependency" has been preferred as a technical term in scientific and

Object Relations, Attachment & Dependency

Mary D.S. Ainsworth

professional writing.) Dependency was defined at first as a learned drive, acquired through its association with the reduction of primary drives. Dependency could become a generalized personality trait, in regard to which there were individual differences, presumably reflecting different learning histories. Or, more recently, dependency has been viewed by learning theorists as a class of behaviors, learned in the context of the infant's dependency relationship with his mother, and reinforced in the course of her care of him and interaction with him. In any case, although the first dependecy relationship is a specific one-with the mother or mother substitute dependency is viewed as generalizing to other subsequent interpersonal relations and to be commonly nonspecific in its implications. Dependence connotes a state of helplessness. Behavior described as dependent implies seeking not only contact with and proximity to other persons but also help attention, and approval; what is sought and received is significant, not the person from whom it is sought or received. Dependency in the psychoanalytic context also has nonspecific implications, but object relations once acquired are considered sharply...
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