IPA Inter-Regional Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

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OBJECT RELATIONS THEORIES (ORT) Tri-Regional Entry Inter-Regional Consultants: Steven Groarke (Europe), Leigh Tobias (North America) and Abel Fainstein (Latin America) Inter-Regional Coordinating Co-Chair: Eva D. Papiasvili (North America)


Historically, the term ‘Object Relations Theory’ was coined by W.R.D. Fairbairn (1943, 1944). Generally, it denotes a variously defined set of psychoanalytic developmental and structural hypotheses which place the child’s need to relate to others at the center of human motivation. More specifically, it is a psychoanalytic theory, or set of related theories, in which people are seen as motivated from the beginning of life by a need to make contact and form relationships, rather than merely satisfying impulses in order to discharge energy. Communicative interaction with both internal and external others, called ‘objects’, is accorded primacy in the understanding of human life, starting with the construction of primitive emotional ties between infants and their actual caretakers. Primitive emotional and bodily interaction, along these lines, accounts for the way in which external as well as internal ‘objects’ are perceived and experienced by the subject. The definitions of Object Relations hypotheses and theories in contemporary literature and regional dictionaries of all three psychoanalytic continents (Moore and Fine 1990; Auchincloss and Samberg 2012; Skelton 2006; de Mijolla 2013; Borensztejn 2014) vary, as exemplified in the following selection of definitional statements. Psychoanalytic Object Relations Theories present “A system of psychological explanations based on the premise that the mind is comprised of elements taken in from outside, primarily aspects of the functioning of other persons. This occurs by means of the processes of internalization. This model of the mind explains mental functions in terms of relations between the various elements internalized” (Moore and Fine 1990). Similarly, Skelton (2006) proposes that object-relations theory is primarily concerned with “innermost fantasies about relationships”; while Hinshelwood (1991) allowing for a broadly defined notion of object-relations approaches, Kleinian and non- Kleinian, focused essentially on “the state and character of the objects.” In a recent example of intermingling of the psychoanalytic cultures, Kernberg contributes the following definition to De Mijolla’s (2013, p. 1175) International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis: “Psychoanalytic object relations theories may be defined as those that place the internalization, structuralization and clinical reactivation (in the transference and counter-transference) of the earliest dyadic object relations at the center of their motivational (structural, clinical, and genetic and developmental) formulations.”


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