Objective Relations Theory

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Projective Identification
copyright 1996 Hannah Fox, CSW, BCD
All rights reserved - may not be reproduced without permission of Hannah Fox (hfox@object-relations.com)
This document can be found at: http://www.object-relations.com

This presentation will explore several concepts and techniques within the Object Relations theory of family therapy which, if understood, provides a framework for looking at couples and families. Before talking about this approach to family therapy, I would like to explain what object relations theory is all about.

Object Relations Theory was originated in England by a group of British psychoanalysts, including Klein, Balint, Fairburn, Winnicott, and Guntrip. Object relations theory was a break from Freud's drive model, and differs from it as follows:

Freud's model held that a newborn infant is driven by animal instincts, such as hunger, thirst, and pleasure, but cannot relate to others. Relationships with others only develop later in the course of satisfying those needs. In this sense, Freud's model considers relationships to be secondary.

In contrast, object relations theory maintains that the infant can relate to others at a very early age and that relationships with others are, therefore, primary. The drive to attach oneself to an object is considered to be the major motivating force.

Since we are talking about object relations theory, this is a good time to ask what an object is. In object relations theory, the word object is used with a very specific meaning. It's not literally a physical person, but an internal mental structure that is formed throughout early development. This mental structure is built through a series of experiences with significant others through a psychic process called introjection. Because an infant's earliest experiences are usually with its mother, she is usually the first internal object formed by the infant. Eventually, the father and other significant people also become internalized objects.

Introjection, the process of creating internal mental objects, leads to another process called splitting. Splitting occurs because the infant cannot tolerate certain feelings such as rage and longing, which occur in all normal development. As a result, the infant has to split off parts of itself and repress them. What happens to those repressed split-off parts? They are dealt with through another important process, called projective identification.

Projective identification itself is a very specific part of object relations theory. It is a defense mechanism which was conceptualized by Melanie Klein in 1946, having evolved from her extensive study and work with children. According to Klein, projective identification consists of splitting off parts of the self, projecting them into another person, and then identifying with them in the other person.

For example, the earliest relationship the infant has with its mother is feeding and touching, but the mother is not always able to respond quickly enough to the infant's need. Since the natural rage and longing the infant feels at such times are intolerable, to survive these feelings the infant "splits them off" and represses them from its consciousness. The "split off"feelings can be thought of as other parts of the self (ego).

When such splitting takes place, the infant is free of the rage but has placed that part of itself inside the mother. To make itself whole again it must identify with the mother. The mother may or may not allow herself to become the cntainer for the infant's negative feelings. Even if she doesn't, the projective identification still occurs.

The above process begins in the first half year of life, known as the paranoid-schizoid position. It is characterized by an ability to distinguish good feelings from bad, but an inability...
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