What is British Object Relations?

At the basis of Object Relations is the relationship between infant and mother

British Object Relations is a theory of psychoanalytic thinking that originated in the United Kingdom in the early 1900s, that has the understanding that the development of the human mind is strongly influenced by the complexities of interaction between infants and their early experience of the world, particularly their relationship with their caregivers. In a simplified version, the theory of object relations understands that infants are born with a “primitive” way of organizing their mind, and that is through the relationship with “objects”, mainly their mother and the mother’s breast, that they begin to form their mind in a way that is able to tolerate the outside world, and subsequently grow.

What is the “Object” in British Object Relations?

In this infant’s world, an “object” is a mental image of the mother (or father, or nanny…essentially, the primary caretaker). Every human infant takes into their mind representations of their mother, and those representations become a part of the infant’s mind. Subsequently, the internal parts of the infant’s mind can begin to inform how they experience the world and how they engage in relationships. In the words of Althea Horner,

“What is at first interpersonal becomes structured as during organizations of the mind – that is, it becomes intrapsychic – and then what has become intrapsychic once again becomes expressed in the interpersonal situation.”

British Object Relations is developmental in its perspective

Rather than the idea that mind is an innate structure that acts solely on impulses and reactions, British Object Relations looks at the mind as being deeply intertwined with the environment within which an infant grows – the physical environment and the mental environment of the primary caretakers. The nuances of the environment interacting with the genetic nuances of the baby can have far reaching implications in how the baby develops, and subsequently how all of us as humans experience the world.

Some Introductory Concepts in British Object Relations

Projective Identification

Projective Identification is the unconscious mental process of the mind splitting off parts of itself and locating it in another. In psychoanalysis this is thought of as the patient locating unconscious parts of themselves in the therapist to have the therapist understand what the patient cannot process themselves. Projective Identification is a function in paranoid/schizoid position in development.

Paranoid Schizoid Position

The paranoid-schizoid position is one of the earliest stages of development of the mind.

Imagine a baby that is just born, it’s eyesight undeveloped and blurry, little to no understanding of the sensations in their body, and one of the first experiences they have is feeding at the mother’s breast. In Object Relations we think of the mother’s breast as a “part object”, that is, it is not the whole mother only a part of her. This infant’s primary sensations are feeding at the mother’s breast, and then the absence of the breast. Symbolically, the good breast and the bad breast. The infant is gratified, full, soothed with the “good” breast, but in its absence, when the infant feels the distress and frustration of hunger, the infant fantasizes the breast as bad. This stage is called the paranoid-schizoid position (referred to as a position because it’s not a linear experience: everyone moves in and out of this position all throughout their lives).

Depressive Position

Continuing in imagining this infants experience, as the baby grows, and as the mother is adequately meeting the babies needs in conjunction with the physical changes of the baby (eye sight development, recognition of sound coming both from themselves and another, etc.), the baby is not dominate by splitting process in the paranoid-schizoid position. Rather the baby begins to see the mother as a whole person, not just the part object breast. The baby sees the mother can occupy both good and bad qualities at the same time. This is the Depressive Position.

The name can sound confusing, as we commonly associate depression with something negative. But in object relations, the name of the depressive position relates to the mourning quality of realizing the wholeness of another, because in doing so we become aware of our separateness. The baby sees they are separate from the mother, the mother is separate from them.

Throughout all of our lives we can be grappling with the reality that we are separate from others, and yet we deeply need them.