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Object Relations: An Overview

May 6, 2010

I choose to err on the side of giving my clients too much information.  There is nothing magical about therapy, and it seems to me the more a person understands the process, the quicker they can experience the results they are looking for.  They, in turn, spend less money and time in the counseling office, and more time living out their changes with the people they care most about. 

That being said, today we are going to take a look at a specific counseling theory so that folks can gain a better understanding of this all works, but first we should explain the therapeutic grid in which theory fits.

Imagine, for a moment you have a funnel.  At the top of the funnel, where it is most broad, lies the worldview of the therapist.  This is the overarching way in which a particular therapist sees the world.  I particularly like wiktionary’s definition:  A general philosophy or view of life.  For example, perhaps the therapist is an atheist.  Perhaps she is an agnostic.  Perhaps she is a Christian, or Orthodox Jew or some other religion.  How she views and interacts with her existence, the values and precepts she holds about herself and others, is going to affect the particular theory she chooses.

Thus, the middle of our funnel is theory.  Major counseling theories include, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Play Therapy, Behavioral Therapy, Existential Therapy, Narrative Therapy, and so on.  Each framework gives the therapist an understanding and direction as they conceptualize the struggles of the client.  In a very basic sense, a theory provides a kind of, “What’s going on?  How did we get here?  How do we move forward?” way of looking at each individual situation. 

Lastly, each theory utilizes techniques or interventions to promote change in the client.  This is the base of our funnel, where the rubber hits the road, so to speak.  (Well, now I’m mixing metaphors…but I think you get the point.)  Techniques are sometimes obvious, and sometimes go completely unnoticed by the client.  Some techniques are extraordinarily simple – like empathy.  For example, a client is grieving the loss of his wife, and the therapist is intently listening, meeting the man in his pain, and reflecting the pain back to the man through body language, kind words, tone of voice, or perhaps just silence.  Other techniques might be more overt.  Such as, a behavioral therapist instructing a woman who is afraid of riding in elevators to start her path to change by standing in an elevator, but walking out before the door closes.  Next she is to get on the elevator and actually push a button to a floor, but walk out before the door closes.  After gradually exposing the woman to the phobia in a managed way, her last assignment is to actually ride the elevator.  While this is an accelerated example of the technique, it does illustrate a more overt intervention known as systematic desensitization. 

Hopefully, that serves as an outline for viewing our topic at hand today:  The theory of Object Relations.

Object Relations Therapy is really just a fancy, if not confusing, way of saying, “human relations therapy.”  As a theory it is a break from the traditional Freudian psychoanalysis that sees “objects” as both animate and inanimate.  Meaning, to Freud, an object could be a pacifier, money, or any other host of lifeless objects.  A particularly good book on Object Relations is, aptly titled, Object Relations Therapy, by Dr. Sheldon Cashdan.  (No When Harry Met Sally jokes, please.)  He explains what I am talking about here when he writes,

“The ‘stuff’ of which mind is made has less to do with libidinal impulses and psychic energy than with the internalization of relationships.  To understand what motivates people and how they view themselves, one needs to understand how relationships are internalized and how they become transformed into a sense of self.”

To put this as clearly as possible:  We are relational beings.  Our greatest joys in life come in the context of relationships – parents, wives, husbands, kids, friends.  And our greatest pains in life come in the context of relationships – parents, wives, husbands, kids, friends.  So, when a client seeks help from a therapist that utilizes Object Relations, he or she can expect to hone in on the relationships in the client’s life.  Let’s take a look at how this plays out in the therapy hour.

You guessed it, “Tell me about your mother.”  The first and most important relationships we have are with our caregivers when we first enter the world.  Our dependence on, our interactions with, and our rebellion to these individuals allows us to shape what we eventually refer to as the “self”.  As kids we come to look at life as “split” between the good and the bad.  Sometimes mom and dad hold us, feed us, comfort us, etc; and sometimes we have to lie in bed and cry ourselves to sleep.  As we get older, we have some playmates that pick us first for kickball, and some classmates that sit on the sidelines and throw rocks at us.  As teenagers we are accepted by some and cast aside by others.  On into adulthood, where the stakes are even higher – jobs are landed, divorces happen, children are born, and children get cancer.  Our entire lives are made up of gratifying and frustrating, if not devastating, experiences.  This “splitting” is the basis for what object relationalists refer to as “relational pathology.”  Again I turn to the kind looking prof from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for he states this clearly when he writes:

“Instead of suffering from an inability to reconcile inner impulses, there is an inability to meaningfully engage others in sustained and/or gratifying relationships.  The meaning of psychiatric symptoms (anxiety, depression, somatic complaints) is that the patient’s relationships are deteriorating or are threatening the patient’s sense of self.”

Essentially, Object Relations says, if we are going to have any sense of who we are and what purpose we serve, then we must be in meaningful and enduring relationships with others.  But what if we have doubts about our self-worth?  What if we fail to trust that others will have sustaining relationships with us on their own accord?  This is where we get into trouble, for this is where we begin to employ unhealthy strategies to keep those significant people in our lives bound to us.  We manipulate others to behave or respond in a certain way so as to force them to stay.  The problem is no one likes being manipulated. 

Basically, there are four major ways we trick people into staying due to our own lack of self-worth:

  1. Dependency:  We take a stance of helplessness with those around us.  This communicates to others that we can’t survive without them, and we induce them to be our caretakers.
  2. Power:  We take a stance of control, whereby communicating to those around us that they can’t survive with us.  As a result we induce them to being incompetent and dependent on us.
  3. Sex:  We take the stance of eroticism.  This communicates to those around us that we will make them sexually whole.  As a result our modus operandi is to arouse them, and intertwine them with us based on the continuation of their sexual fulfillment.
  4. Ingratiation:  We take the stance of self-sacrifice.  By playing the martyr we trick those we care about into believing they owe us.  This keeps them around by forcing them to appreciate all that we do for them.  (A more behind the scenes version of power, so-to-speak.)

 So there you have it, a 1,256  or so, word overview of Object Relations Theory.  We are in relationships from day one, and in order to live worthwhile lives we must continue to be in relationships.  However, due to our lack of self-worth, and fear regarding the loss of these relationships we manipulate the people we care about in a feeble attempt to keep them around.  The problem is, this actually has a tendency to push them out the door, when they probably weren’t going anywhere in the first place. 

Now, I can hear the masses crying out, “But you haven’t explained how change occurs!  Lead us down the path to healing!”  And I realize I am cutting this post off on a bit of a downer, but the rest will have to be left for another day.  Besides I have to go mow the lawn before my wife or the weeds in my backyard kill me.  And let’s be honest, this thing is long enough already.  I’m sure the only two people that are actually still reading are my wife and Matt…well, and maybe my mom.  She probably wanted to see if she made it into my discussion on, “So, tell me about your mother…” but alas, you’ll find no such juicy details here.  Love ya, mom! 😉

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