What Is Meant By Objects Relations Theory?
In broad terms, it is the theory of how people interact and relate to others, especially within the family and, more especially still, how the child and mother relate to one another.
The theory stresses how dysfunctional relationships, especially in early life, can lead to the development of psychological disorders in later life.
Kohout (1971), theorised that Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) had its primary origin in the way the mother related to, and interacted with, her baby/toddler between the ages of approximately 18 months and 3 years of age.
In particular, Kohout proposed, the baby/toddler is put at high risk of developing BPD in later life if s/he is brought up by a mother who does not allow him/her to psychologically separate from her, thus depriving him/her of the opportunity to develop and assert his own unique individuality.
For example, a child brought up by a mother with BPD may develop a high risk of developing the same psychiatric condition himself in later life. This is because such mothers tend to view their child as an extension of themselves, whose purpose is to fulfil her emotional needs, rather than allowing the child to psychologically differentiate him/herself from her, develop his/her own individuality and unique identity, and to learn to tend effectively to his/her own emotional needs. It is as if the mother sucks the life out of her child for her own emotional nourishment.
Such mothers, Kohout suggests, can interact adequately with their baby/toddler when s/he (the baby/toddler) is in a state of neediness, but will become cold and rejecting when the child attempts to psychologically separate from her to try to develop independence and a proper, clearly defined, sense of self.
Kohout goes on to describe his theory that such a dysfunctional early upbringing leads to the child, in later life, developing a psychological defense mechanism known as ‘splitting’. I will describe what is meant by psychologists when they use the term ‘splitting’ in my next post.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).