Freudian Object Relations Model


The object relations model has evolved to different psychoanalytic theories and therapeutic practices, changing the meaning of the drives, ego, and super-ego. The object appears when Freud describes it as a way to satisfy the instincts. He expresses the object relations primarily in connection with the manifestation of predispositions rather than separating one from another. In addition, Freud’s attention was focused primarily on the Oedipus complex; therefore, it recognizes that the nature of pre-Oedipal object relations remain obscure for him. The object relations model is the system of psychological views based on postulate, according to which the mind is composed of elements taken from the primary external qualities of the others through a process of internalization. In other words, the main focus in the Freudian model is a relation between the human being (ego) and the others (super-ego). The object relations model explains functions of the psyche in terms of the relationships between various internalized elements. Also it has been changed many times as rapidly as Freud has transformed his theory. Thus, it was the evolution through the cultural periods, critical remarks, and practice in real life as a method of therapy.

The Evolution of the Freudian Model

Freud pointed out that the perception of the importance of other people and failure in interacting with them determines the nature, character, and function of the mental structures. Earlier, in 1895, he stated that the experience of reward and frustration on the part of the object is stored securely. Freud was interested in the development of the theory of attraction. Thus, he focused on examples of rewards and frustrations, the roles of an affective trauma (drive discharge), as well as the topographical model, in which the object is a tool for searching and finding satisfaction. In the early life of the object, the search is perceived to be in connection with the libidinal satisfaction. Thus, the instinctual attractions should seek a satisfaction as soon as possible to find objects, and then to become dependent on the objects in the context of already existing relations. In 1905, Freud postulated a simple idea that the child’s first love is the mother’s breast (Ainsworth, 1969, p. 972). The thesis was a first serious step for building the object relations model in future.

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In the topographic model, Freud emphasized the pathological impact of traumatic experiences in working with the subject. He showed how the unconscious desires and fantasies could convert a neutral relationship with the object into the trauma, leaving disturbing and devastating memories. Later he put the emphasis on the individual perception of non-traumatic object and on the way through which it connects the experience with drives, ego, and super-ego. Then Fairbairn reversed Freudian vision of libidinal development by assuming that “libidinal pleasure is fundamentally a ‘signpost’ to the object rather than its opposite” (Buckley, 1994, p. 523). Moreover, although it was more about the operation than on structural formations, Freud noted that the identification of the object is a main factor in the development of structures of the ego and super-ego.

Freud made the following important addition to the theory of object relations, when revising the theory of anxiety in 1926. He noted that the ego could be easily suppressed by the external reason in early childhood. When the infant defines his experience as an external, the perceived object can put a culmination to a dangerous situation. The infant ego helplessly controls the anxiety that becomes an object. However, Gill (1990) underlines that Freud revealed the significance of objects and human instinctual impulses in the child development, but did not mention the crucial one (p. 489). Freud believed that the lack of ego functions at a later age appeared due to both the power of instinctual impulses and the weakness of the objects that regulated the child. He established a correspondence between the anxiety connected with the objects and associative fantasies, which correspond to the phases of psychosexual development, including the loss of love object, castration and punishment by the super-ego. Finally, he added that the weakness and dependence cause a sense of danger and the need to be loved in child. He carries the feelings throughout the whole life.

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The Critical Evaluation

Freudian object relations model has both strength and limitations. His theory, though clear about the importance of mother-infant tie, was incomplete, scattered, and somewhat conflicting. However, many contemporary therapists use Freudian model both in theory and practice. Knafo (2010) tries to adapt theory into the method called the O.R.T., and Hasar (2015) investigates the symptom of subjectivity blending both Freudian and Lacanian object relations ideas.

The psychologists, who support the Freudian theory, presume that aggression is a congenital condition, and has a significant impact on the shape of contacts and interaction in the childhood. Among the supporters of the approach are Melanie Klein, Winnicott, and the ego-psychological theorists. Kleinn believed in an intrapsychic world that is only marginally influenced by outside objects (Berman, 1997, p. 187). The most controversial issue is the extent and possible transformation of authentic experiences associated with the relationship between the individual and the others in the infant age, under the combined influence of unconscious fantasies and activities of mental structures that reflect the intra-psychic conflicts. In other words, the fantasy about the others is more important than the real others in the childhood. Berman (1997) stated that Klein, like Freud, objected to an importance on countertransference, but “colleagues inspired by her (Heimann, Winnicott, Racker) turned countertransference analysis into a cornerstone of psychoanalytic treatment” (p. 187).

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Furthermore, the object relations theorists have significant differences. The Kernberg’s ego-psychological theory is not consistent with the principles of the traditional ego psychology. Its starting point is the assumption of the indissoluble unity of attractions and object relations. It allows concluding that any product is the result of a merger of attraction self-image and understanding of the facility. Thus, the nature of the relationship depends on the emotional predispositions. Moreover, for Puget (2010) the world of object relations does not coincide with the world of psychic (p. 5). Puget marks them as different domains with different labels. Thus, Freudian model has its own boundaries.

Additionally, the object relations model has some limitations and disadvantages as well, because many aspects of Freudian theory are indeed out of date (Western, 1998, p. 333). Firstly, the model does not take into account the specific needs of the client; for example, the need to be alone, or regress. It may not work well with the mandate of clients or those who want to explore themselves through the therapeutic relationship. The aforementioned factor is considered a cultural face. Secondly, texts about object relations are complex and difficult to understand. Therefore, many concepts cannot be transported into real life because of their obscurity. Thirdly, transference and countertransference do not always allow a client to effort through problematic feelings.

Contemporary Therapeutic Practices

The object relations model has influenced the contemporary therapeutic practices that have acquired a new meaning. Most of the therapeutic practices shifted from dominant status of therapist to the need for careful listening to the patient’s problems, including echoes from the childhood. There are some of the most significant changes discussed below.

Therapists are encouraged to be more empathetic, participative, real, genuine, and involved in their answers. Actually, the shift is one of the most central ones in the object relations therapy that expresses the type of special treatment to the individual lives. For instance, Smith (1990) described the careful application of the object therapy in the Rorschach assessment, where “the transitional object is chosen to soothe the child in the absence of mother” (p. 766).

The structure of the treatment is more flexible and individualized. Because humans exist in a world of complex interpersonal relationships (Sugarman, 1977, p. 207), the contemporary therapy is concentrating on every single case, rooting on the interpersonal flexible context.

The practice of the therapist is to bring the patient to a safe condition. Therapeutic decision-retention protection that offers the opportunity to participate in new confident interaction is also an essential component of contemporary therapy. Eagle (1999) emphasized that in contrast to Freud, the contemporary object relations and attachment theorists would maintain that the need for safety and attachment are lifelong principles rather than infantile goals that should be abandoned in adulthood (p. 19). According to the aforementioned idea, Favero and Ross (2002) illustrate a case with a patient’s dream to be vampire that is the infantile pre-Oedipal object relations and the need for safety in such pathological form as well.

The list of therapeutic practices has consumed beyond the use of insight-oriented methods  to cover a wide range of customized development activities. They include efforts to address some of the patient’s needs and to provide the environmental support. Thus, Silverman (1986) does not separate Freudian model from Fairbairn, proposing their mix in order to use the multi-model approach, because “conflicts over drives require major efforts” (p. 122). His approach is partially opposite to the object relations model, but in fact it is a method of rethinking its main principles in the therapy practices, where the patient’s need is the main concern. Pulver (1993) and Frosch (2007) also try to combine different theories in order to prove that psychoanalytical schools are not as different from one another as they are commonly supposed to be (Pulver, 1993, p. 339).

The contemporary therapist pays a special attention to the patient’s subjective experience and personal narrative than before. Thus, it is recommended to take a cooperative instead of authoritarian position in the treatment. As Frosch (2007) suggests, there is a collision during therapy between the patient’s unconscious theory of cure and the analyst’s conscious theory (p. 274). Therefore, the therapist should overcome the conflict.

Treatment is founded on revision and extension of the individual theory, so it reflects the impact of early relationships and self-development in influencing the type of the patient’s pathology. For example, Diamond and Meehan (2013) illustrates a case of object relations in patients with narcissistic personality disorder, and then discovers such pathologies as the difficulty sustaining sexual interest in his long-term partner, and the split between devalued, desexualized love objects. Fetterman et al. (2014) also illuminates the similar narcissistic situation, but in the light of interpersonal pronouns.

Theoretical development of object relations has led to certain changes in the contemporary psychoanalytic therapy. If classical psychoanalysis followers adhered to the principle of abstinence and acted as an opaque mirror, then in the context of the object relations he/she began to assume the projective pathological manifestations of transference. Thus, the psychoanalyst should pay more attention to the development of relations between a therapist and a patient.


The development of Freudian object relations model allows clarifying many aspects of how the children and adults form relationships with their peers and how a system of social relations is built. Moreover, it describes the various forms of destructive and pathological human interactions. The special importance of Freudian theory is in treatment of very disturbed patients suffering from severe forms of mental and personality disorders. Most of Freudian followers believe that a high degree of mental disorders associated with the psychological challenges of early object relations that primarily happen in the childhood.

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