Psychoanalytic objectrelations theories overview and critique

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Given the centrality of object-relations theory in practically all contemporary psychoanalytic formulations and treatment approaches, the following summary is included. It should help the reader to clarify further the references made earlier to this theory.

Psychoanalytic object-relations theories may be defined as those that place the internalization, structuralization, and reactivation in the transference and countertransference of the earliest dyadic object relations at the centre of their clinical formulations, and of their thinking about motivation, pathogenesis, development, and psychic structure. Internalization of object relations refers to the concept that, in all interactions of the infant and child with the significant parental figures, what the infant internalizes is not merely an image or representation of the other ('the object' of fear, hatred or desire), but the relationship between the self and the other, in the form of a self-image or self representation linked to an object image or object representation by the affect that dominates their interaction. This internal structure replicates in the intrapsychic world both real and phantasied relationships with significant others.

Several major issues separate different object-relations theories, the most important of which is the extent to which the theory is perceived as harmonious with or in opposition to Freud's traditional drive theory: i.e. whether object relations are seen as replacing drives as the motivational system for human behaviour. From this perspective, Klein/92,1) Mahler et al.,(!3) and Jacobson^2 occupy one pole. They combine Freud's dual-drive theory with an object-relations theory. For Fairbairn (19 and Sullivan/39) on the other hand, object relations themselves replace Freud's drives as the major motivational system. Here, the establishment of gratifying object relations in itself constitutes the major motivational system. Contemporary interpersonal psychoanalysis as represented by Greenberg and Mitchell, (4°) based upon an integration of principally Fairbairnian and Sullivanian concepts, asserts the essential incompatibility between drive-based and object-relations-based models of psychic motivational systems. Winnicott, Loewald/41..) Sandler,(42> and Sandler and Sandler(4?> (each for different reasons) maintain an intermediate posture; they perceive the affective frame of the infant-mother relationship as a crucial determinant in shaping the development of drives. While adhering to Freud's dual-drive theory, Kernberg^ considers drives supraordinate motivational systems, while affects are their constituent components.

A related controversy has to do with the origin and role of aggression as motivator of behaviour. Those theoreticians who reject the idea of inborn drives, k.9 or equate libido with the search for object relations, conceptualize aggression as secondary to the frustration of libidinal needs, particularly traumatic experiences in the early mother-infant dyad. Theoreticians who adhere to Freud's dual-drive theory, in contrast, believe aggression is inborn and plays an important part in shaping early interactions: this group includes Klein in particular, and to some extent Winnicott, and ego psychology object-relations theoreticians such as Kernberg. (35>

Finally, contrast may be made between object-relations theories and French approaches, both Lacanian and (non-Lacanian) mainstream psychoanalysis. The French psychoanalytic mainstream^4,45 has maintained close links with traditional psychoanalysis, including the British object-relations theories. Insofar as Lacan (46) conceptualizes the unconscious as a natural language and focuses on the cognitive aspects of unconscious development, he underemphasizes affect— a dominant element of object-relations theories. At the same time, however, in postulating a very early Oedipal structuralization of all infant-mother interactions, Lacan emphasizes archaic Oedipal developments, which implicitly links his formulations with those of Kleinian object-relations theory in general. French mainstream analysis also focuses on archaic aspects of Oedipal developments, but places a traditional emphasis on Freud's dual-drive theory and on the affective nature of the early ego-id. As neither French mainstream nor Lacanian psychoanalysis spells out specific structural consequences of dyadic internalized object relations, however, neither would fit the definition that frames the field of object-relations theory as proposed in this chapter.

All object-relations theories focus heavily on the enactment of internalized object relations in the transference, and on the analysis of countertransference in the development of interpretive strategies. They are particularly concerned with severe psychopathologies, including those psychotic patients who are approachable with psychoanalytic techniques; borderline conditions; severe narcissistic character pathology; and the perversions ('paraphilias'). Object-relations theories explore primitive defensive operations and object relations both in cases of severe psychopathology and at points of severe regression with all patients, regarding such exploration as essential in facilitating transference analysis and conflict resolution.

The contemporary re-evaluation of Freud's dual-drive theory that has occurred mostly in France is relevant to the relationship between object-relations theory and drive theory. Perhaps particularly the work of Laplanche (4Z) and Green(44) has emphasized the central importance of unconscious destructive and self-destructive drive manifestations in the form of attacks on object relations, and the central role of unconscious erotization in the mother-infant relationship in libidinal development, all of which tends to link drive theory and object-relations theory in intimate ways.

Another important development within psychoanalytic theory has been the growing emphasis on affects as primary motivators, and the centrality of the communicative functions of affects in early development, particularly the infant-mother relationship. (48) This emphasis has linked affect theory and object-relations theory quite closely, despite the persistent controversy between those who see affect, particularly peak affect states, as essential representatives of the drives, (4.8) and those who stress the psychophysiological nature of the affective response, and attempt to replace drive theory with an affect theory. (49)

The basic (self representation-object representation) units of internalized object relations include the representative affects, or else the constituent affective components of the drives. One might say that the affect of sexual excitement is the central affect of libido, in the same way as the affect of primitive hatred constitutes the central affect of the aggressive or death drive. The id is conceptualized in this object-relations theory model as the sum total of repressed, desired, and feared primitive object relations. The gradual integration of successive layers of persecutory and idealized, prohibitive and demanding, internalized object relations become part of the primitive superego, while internalized object relations activated in the service of defence consolidate as part of an integrated self-structure surrounded by integrated representations of significant others. In short, the id or dynamic unconscious, the superego, and the ego are constituted by different constellations of internalized object relations, so that the development of the drives and the development of the psychic apparatus—the tripartite structure—occur hand in hand.

Perhaps the most important practical implication of object-relations theory is the conception of identification as a series of internalization processes of dyadic units of self representation and object representation linked by a dominant affect state, ranging from earliest introjections to identifications per se, to the development of complex identity formation. Each step includes the internalizing of both self and object representations and their affective interactions under the conditions that prevail at different developmental levels.

In the transference of healthier patients, with a well-consolidated ego identity, the diverse self-representations are relatively stable in their coherent mutual linkage. This fosters the relatively consistent projection onto the analyst of the object representation aspect of the enacted object relationship. In contrast, patients with severe identity diffusion lack such linkage of self representations into an integrated self. They tend to alternate rapidly between projection of self and object representations in the transference, so that the analytic situation seems chaotic. Systematic interpretation of how the same internalized object relation is enacted again and again with rapid role reversals between patient and analyst makes it possible to clarify the nature of the unconscious object relation, and the double splitting of self representation from object representation and idealized from persecutory object relations. This process of interpretation promotes integration of the split representations which characterize severe psychopathology and account for the marked instability of the emotions, behaviour, and interpersonal relationships of these patients.

tombe^35 proposes that affects are the primary motivational system and that, internalized or fixated as the very frame of internalized 'good' and 'bad' object relations, affects are gradually integrated into libidinal and aggressive drives to form hierarchically supraordinate motivational systems. In other words, primitive affects are the 'building blocks' of the drives. He sees unconscious intrapsychic conflicts as always between the following:

1. certain units of self and object representations under the impact of a particular drive derivative (clinically, a certain affect disposition reflecting the drive derivative side of the conflict);

2. contradictory or opposing units of self and object representations and their respective affect dispositions reflecting the defensive structure.

Unconscious intrapsychic conflicts are never simply between impulse and defence; rather, both impulse and defence find expression, respectively, through certain internalized object relations.

In patients with borderline personality organization and severe conflicts around early aggression, splitting mechanisms stabilize such dynamic structures within an ego-id matrix and permit the contradictory aspects of these conflicts to remain at least partially conscious, in the form of primitive, mutually split-off, idealized and persecutory transferences. In contrast, patients with neurotic personality organization present impulse-defence configurations that contain specific unconscious wishes of an integrated though infantile self, reflecting sexual and aggressive drive derivatives embedded in unconscious phantasies relating to the Oedipal objects. Repressed unconscious wishes, however, always come in the form of corresponding units composed of self representation and object representation and affect linking them.

Patients with neurotic personality organization present well-integrated superego, ego, and id structures; within the psychoanalytic situation, the analysis of resistances brings about the activation, in the transference, first of relatively global characteristics of these structures, and later, the internalized object relations of which they are composed. Oedipal conflicts dominate the dynamic unconscious of these patients. The analysis of drive derivatives occurs in the context of the analysis of the relation of the patient's infantile self to significant parental objects as projected onto the analyst.

Patients with severe personality disorders or borderline personality organization, in contrast, show a predominance of psychic representations of pre-Oedipal conflicts, with pre-Oedipal aggression, in particular, condensed with representations of the Oedipal phase. Conflicts are not predominantly repressed and therefore unconsciously dynamic; rather, they are avoided by being represented in mutually dissociated ego states reflecting the defence of primitive dissociation or splitting.

The activation of primitive object relations that predate the consolidation of ego, superego, and id is manifest in the transference as apparently chaotic affect states, which have to be analysed in sequential steps as follows:

1. the clarification of a dominant primitive object relation in the transference, with its corresponding self and object representation, and the dominant affect linking them;

2. the analysis of the alternative projection of self and object representation onto the therapist, while the patient identifies with a reciprocal self or object representation of this object relationship, leading to the patient's gradual capacity to become aware of his or her identification with an object in that relationship;

3. the interpretive integration of mutually split-off, idealized, and persecutory 'part object' relations with the characteristics mentioned.

This analysis may gradually bring about a transformation of mutually split, idealized, and persecutory ('part object') relations into 'total object' relations, or of primitive transferences (largely reflecting Mahler's stages of development that predate object constancy) into the advanced transferences of the Oedipal phase. In other words, a gradual integration of self representations into an integrated self-concept, and a parallel integration of significant object representations into integrated concepts of significant others develop first in the transference, and later generalize in the patient's relations with significant others. The analyst's exploration of his or her countertransference, including concordant and complementary identifications in the countertransference, (2Z> facilitates transference analysis, and the analysis of primitive defensive operations, particularly splitting and projective identification, in the transference also contributes to strengthening the patient's ego.

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