What Is Object Relations Theory? The Mom Factor in Relationships

Learn how your relationship with your mother affects all others

Mom & toddler girl taking selfie joyfully in cafe
Getty Images/images by Tang Ming Tung

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.

We explore how you are affected and what your relationship with your mother may say about your future in relationships.

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 in 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.

The Mom Factor: Piecing It All Together

Object relations theory holds that the way mothers and infants react is crucial in infant growth and development. If care is adequate or "good enough" children are able to develop their true selves, that is the part of the baby that is creative and spontaneous, whereas if they are not, they create a false self or one that is playing to the needs of others and is based on compliance with others' expectations, instead of the child's self. Over time, acceptable parental care that will create the true self includes the following stages:

  • Holding - actual physical affection and holding including cuddling, holding hands, or lap sitting is familiar and regular behavior in satisfactory parental care.
  • Mother and infant living together - experiencing the daily routine of both psychological and physical care such as eating, grooming and interacting through mundane tasks is important for baby's proper development.
  • Father, mother and infant, all three living together - as the child grows into relative dependence and later into independence, the importance of witnessing the interaction of the mother and father is essential to teaching the child relational care outside of one's self which they observe between the father and mother.

Object relations theory holds that a chink in any of these important steps can cause issues in developing relationships later in life.

Sonoma State University. Object Relations Theory. Retrieved January 29, 2013.

Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Theory of Mind in Autism. Retrieved January 29, 2013.

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