An Object Relations Approach to Understanding Unusual Behaviors and Disturbances 

Feedback by Sam Vaknin Ph.D.

This essay by Kathi Stringer surveys Object relations theory (mainly Mahler's work). I fully agree with her that this branch of psychodynamics possesses the strongest explanatory powers as far as childhood development and the emergence of psychopathology go.

The main problems with the limited versions of object relations are the neglect of all early infancy influences, bar the mother's - and the proliferation of postulated psychic structures, none of them directly observable. There isn't an agreement even as to basic terminology. Klein's "bad object" is "out thee" - Winnicott's is internalized.

Additionally, the various phases and transitions - such as Separation-Individuation - are "smooth" and do not "leave psychological traces". Melanie Klein's work with its life-long "positions" (paranoid-schizoid and, later, depressive) partly saw to that - but, even so, some scholars (Daniel Stern) dispute the entire edifice based on clinical research.

It is not even agreed that the awareness of separate objects is not an innate, born, ability. Klein - a pillar of Object Relations Theory - thought that infants are born with an ego and the immediate ability to split the world into bad and good objects. Kohut suggested that narcissism and object-love co-exist throughout life and are born - not learned - qualities. And, as many a mother would attest, most children are aware of outside object long before they are 30 days old, the end of the Autistic Phase, according to Mahler.

Classic Object Relations theory also fails to explain the Rapprochement sub-phase of the Separation-Individuation phase. What brings about the separation anxiety that drives the child back into his mother's arms and provokes in it an acute sense of object inconstancy? How does the child transit from the symbiotic omnipotent dyad, in which the mother is a mere extension - into a state of quivering hysteria? Where does the realization of separateness emanate from? The development of language skills reflect this mysterious process - they do not induce it.

Aware of these weaknesses in Mahler's work, Object Relations theorists suggested that primary narcissism has numerous roots. The omnipotence attributed to the mother-extension in the symbiotic phase is only one of them. More about this in my Primer on Narcissism.


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