Overview of Object Relations Theory

The object relations theory of Melanie Klein was built on careful observations of young children. In contrast to Freud, who emphasized the first 4 to 6 years of life, Klein stressed the importance of the first 4 to 6 months after birth. She insisted that the infant's drives (hunger, sex, and so forth) are directed to an object—a breast, a penis, a vagina, and so on. According to Klein, the child's relation to the breast is fundamental and serves as a prototype for later relations to whole objects, such as mother and father. The very early tendency of infants to relate to partial objects gives their experiences an unrealistic or fantasy-like quality that affects all later interpersonal relations. Thus, Klein's ideas tend to shift the focus of psychoanalytic theory from organically based stages of development to the role of early fantasy in the formation of interpersonal relationships.

In addition to Klein, other theorists have speculated on the importance of a child's early experiences with the mother. Margaret Mahler believed that children's

136 Part II Psychodynamic Theories sense of identity rests on a three-step relationship with their mother. First, infants have basic needs cared for by their mother; next, they develop a safe symbiotic relationship with an all-powerful mother; and finally, they emerge from their mother's protective circle and establish their separate individuality. Heinz Kohut theorized that children develop a sense of self during early infancy when parents and others treat them as if they had an individualized sense of identity. John Bowlby investigated infants' attachment to their mother as well as the negative consequences of being separated from their mother. Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues developed a technique for measuring the type of attachment style an infant develops toward its caregiver.

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