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Object-relations theory

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French: théorie du relation d'objet


Freud defined the object as that in which and through which the drive attains its aim. In the years following Freud's death, the twin concepts of the "object" and the "object relation" attained a growing importance in psychoanalytic theory, and eventually a whole school of psychoanalytic theory came to be known as "object-relations theory. (The main proponents of object-relations theory were Ronald Faibairn, D.W. Winnicott and Michael Balint, all of whom were members of the Middle Group of the British Psycho-Analytical Society.) These analysts differed on many points, and hence object-relations theory covers a wide range of theoretical points of view.


However, despite its lack of precise definition, object-relations theory can be contrasted with ego-psychology on account of its focus on object rather than on the drives in themselves. This focus on objects means that object-relations theory pays more attention to the intersubjective constitution of the psyche, in contrast to the more atomistic approach of ego-psychology.

Lacanian Psychoanalysis

Although Lacanian psychoanalysis has been compared with object-relations theory in that both schools of thought place more emphasis on intersubjectivity, Lacan himself criticizes object-relations theory repeatedly.

His criticisms focus most on the way in which object-relations theory envisions the possibility of a complete and perfectly satisfying relation between the subject and the object. Lacan is opposed to such a view, arguing that for human beings there is no such thing as a "pre-established harmony" betrween "a need and an object that satisfies it."[1] The root of the error is, argues Lacan, that in object-relations theory, "the object is first and foremost an object of satisfaction."[2]

In other words, by locating the object in the register of satisfaction and need, object-relations theory confuses the object of psychoanalysis with the object of biology and neglects the symbolic dimension of desire. One dire consequence that follows from this is that the specific difficulties which arise from the symbolic constitution of desire are neglected, with the result that "mature object relations" and ideals of "genital love" are proposed as the goal of treatment. Thus object-relations theory becomes the site of a "delirious moralism."[3]

Oedipal Structure

A closely related aspect of object-relations theory which Lacan also criticizes is its shift of emphasis from the Oedipal triangle onto the mother-child relation, with the latter conceived of as a perfectly symmetrical, reciprocal relation. One of Lacan's fundamental concern is to restore the centrality of the Oedipal triangle to psychoanalysis by re-emphasizing the importance of the father in contrast to the object-relations emphasis on the mother. This concern can be seen in Lacan's criticism of the object relation as a symmetrical dual relation, and his view that the object relation is an intersubjective relation which involves not two but three terms.

See Also


  1. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 209
  2. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 209
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 716