1. Health

What Is Object Relations Theory?


Updated May 01, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What Is Object Relations Theory?

Object relations theory is centered on our relationships with others. According to this theory, our lifelong relationship skills are strongly rooted in our early attachments with our parents, especially our mothers. Objects refer to people, parts of people, or physical items that symbolically represent either a person or part of a person. Object relations, then, are our relationships to those people or items.


An offshoot of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, object relations theory developed during the late 1920s and 1930s, and became extremely popular during the 1970s. Karl Abraham, Margaret Mahler and Melanie Klein are among those credited with its origination and refinement. Object relations theory is sometimes used in the treatment of phobias, particularly those that focus on people, or our relationships with them.

External and Internal Objects

An external object is an actual person or thing that someone invests with emotional energy. A whole object is a person as she actually exists, with all of the positive and negative traits that she embodies. If we successfully move through the stages of development, we are able to relate to others more as a whole and as they truly are.

An internal object is our psychological and emotional impression of a person. It is the representation that we hold onto when the person is not physically there, and it influences how we view the person in real life. Consequently, the internal object greatly impacts our relationship with the person that it represents.

Object Constancy

Object constancy is the ability to recognize that objects do not change simply because we do not see them. Infants begin to learn object constancy when their parents leave for a short time and then return. As children mature, they begin to spend longer periods of time away from their parents. Separation anxiety and fear of abandonment are common in people who have not successfully developed a sense of object constancy.

Sonoma State University. Object Relations Theory. Retrieved January 29, 2013 from http://www.sonoma.edu/users/d/daniels/objectrelations.html

Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Theory of Mind in Autism. Retrieved January 29, 2013 from http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/?pageId=424

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Phobias
  4. Treatment
  5. Therapy
  6. What Is the Object Relations Theory?

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.