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Object Relations Theories. Geoff Goodman, Ph.D. Melanie Klein and her Followers. I. Basic Developmental Origins of Klein’s Theory Death instinct- aggressive impulses- produces annihilation anxiety and then persecutory anxiety

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object relations theories

Object Relations Theories

Geoff Goodman, Ph.D.

melanie klein and her followers
Melanie Klein and her Followers

I. Basic Developmental Origins of Klein’s Theory

  • Death instinct- aggressive impulses- produces annihilation anxiety and then persecutory anxiety
  • Object attacked and destroyed, but then fear of retaliation (e.g., Stuey on Family Guy)
  • Real external experiences reinforce these perceptions
  • Object also loved and idealized

E. Splitting into good--idealized--breast to protect against bad--dangerous and persecuting--breast

F. Klein called this stage, “paranoid- schizoid position” (0-4 months)

G. Primitive relations--internal and external--created by projection and introjection

H. Growing capacity for integration and synthesis produces the second stage, “depressive position” (4-6 months)


I. Aggression had been directed all along against loved person (good breast = bad breast)

J. Anxiety and guilt of depressive position add powerful impetus toward beginning of Oedipus complex

K. Transference reveals irrationality of earliest object- relations (“The patient is bound to deal with conflicts and anxieties re-experienced towards the analyst by the same method used in the past [in infancy]” (Klein, 1953, p. 55))

ii contributions of klein s theory to the development of object relations as a school of thought
II. Contributions of Klein’s Theory to the Development of Object Relations as a School of Thought
  • Objects exist from the beginning of postnatal life
  • drives expressed through objects
  • drives do not exist without objects
  • relations to objects constitute the origins and development of the ego and superego, not frustrations
b drives are psychological entities not somatic entities
B. Drives are psychological entities, not somatic entities

1. drives are relationships with objects linked by affects that have a particular valence (i.e., good or bad)

2. drives are expressed through bodily functions

a. urine

b. feces

c. vomit

d. flatus


3. drives can represent expressions of love or hatred

4. drives seek not only tension reduction but also relationship with objects

5. drives do not oppose external reality as parental authority but rather each other as manifested in good and bad objects

c psychosexual stages replaced by positions
C. Psychosexual stages replaced by positions
  • bodily sources of tension de-emphasized in favor organizations of relating to object (i.e., part or whole)
  • qualities of psychosexual stages determined by the two positions (i.e., paranoid-schizoid and depressive)

3. Oedipus complex is not a struggle between wishes for opposite-sex parents and fears of castration by same-sex parent but rather a struggle between wishes for opposite-sex parent and “feelings of love and guilt to preserve his father as an internal and external figure” (Klein, 1945, p. 389)

d role of envy in object relations and psychopathology
D. Role of envy in object relations and psychopathology
  • envy is contrasted to greed

a. greed is the collateral destruction of the good object because of insatiable desire

b. envy is the willful destruction of the good object because of resentment and spite over withholding of life-giving supplies (e.g., spoiling milk)


2. envy destroys the good object and so overwhelms splitting processes

a. confusion between good and bad

b. destruction of hope

3. negative therapeutic reaction--worsening in treatment

a. Freud-- guilt over Oedipal victory

b. Klein-- desire to triumph over good, withholding object


4. envious patients “spoil” interpretations to disable their sense of the therapist’s goodness, competence, and desire to help (mention Cornell patient who slit her throat)

iii followers of melanie klein
III. Followers of Melanie Klein
  • Wilfred Bion
  • focused more on caregiver contributions to shift from paranoid-schizoid to depressive positions
    • container of split-off “beta elements”
    • caregiver applies “alpha function” --metabolizes these projective identifications and returns them in understandable form that aids in integration and affect regulation

2. projective identification is not simply a maneuver to extend and control unbearable parts of the self but also a primitive form of communication with caregiver

3. predominance of paranoid-schizoid position

a. deficiencies in caregiver’s capacity for reverie (related to alpha function) or primary maternal preoccupation (Winnicott)

b. overwhelming envy in the infant

b herbert rosenfeld narcissistic conditions
B. Herbert Rosenfeld--narcissistic conditions
  • key features of narcissism
    • predominance of envy
    • predominance of dependence
    • omnipotent denial used as defense against separateness and integrity of the object

1) denial of object’s control over goodness

2) denial of vulnerability to separation from good object


2. two forms of narcissism

a. thin-skinned (libidinal) narcissism (see Kohut’s idealizing transference)

  • idealization of self
  • omnipotent introjection and/or projective identification of good object

b. thick-skinned (destructive) narcissism (see Kohut’s mirroring transference)

  • idealization of omnipotent destructive parts of self that tolerates no dependency
  • derogation of any suggestion of true affection
c elizabeth spillius borderline conditions
C. Elizabeth Spillius--borderline conditions
  • dominance of bad self over the rest of the personality, including masochistic, perverse, addictive parts
  • structured pattern of defenses and impulses rooted somewhere between paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions
iv criticisms of melanie klein s work
IV. Criticisms of Melanie Klein’s Work
  • Objects exist in the form of constitutional, universal knowledge and images
  • De-emphasis on parental behavior, particularly negative behavior
  • The centrality of fantasies in mental life, which does not account for development of structures or patterns
  • Adherence to the death instinct as philosophical proposition applied to clinical cases

E. Elaborate cognitive capacities of infant from birth

F. Origin of the differentiation between the ego and superego

G. Marginalization of “real” mother robs her of agency and subjectivity

H. Innate object categories such as “penis” and ”breast” and “vagina” reinforce idea of anatomy is destiny and make gender configurations less fluid and more binary

  • Integration of objects not possible in Klein’s developmental timetable
    • consciousness of conflicting feelings towards same person?
    • unconscious integration of images?
    • recognition that same person can generate conflicting feelings?
    • difficulties recognizing mixed emotions younger than age 5 but ability to represent same person as sometimes angry and sometimes loving from first year of life