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Object Relations Theory

Updated: Feb 21, 2021


An Introduction to Kleinian Theory

Melanie Klein (1882-1960) was an Austrian-British psychoanalyst and author. She was most well known for her work with children as a child analyst. Her 'object relations theory' is a cornerstone of psychodynamic theory. It famously gives trainee counsellors a headache too, as it can be quite difficult to get to grips with. The reason for this is that Klein essentially develops her own language for communicating her theory. The 'Object' in Kleinian object relations theory does not refer to a static object, but a person (bear with me here). Her theory focuses on the early stages of infancy, and places prominence on the infant’s internal world, as opposed to its external environment. Textbooks refer to Klein as a tragic figure in the history of psychoanalytic theory. They mention her volatile relationship with her mother and sequentially her own daughter, the losses of her brother, father and son and the persecution she faced from other prominent psychoanalysts contemporary to herself. Yet to focus overly on the biography of Klein is to detract from the importance of her theory. Kleinian theory is important in placing importance in how the past affects the present. Klein’s theory is important in emphasising how our own experiences impact how we see relationships, and how we don’t have access to objective reality. Klein has largely been credited with the beginnings of object relations theory, and inspiring other psychoanalysts such as Fairburn, Kernberg and Winnicott.


Kleinian Definitions

Three concepts are the cornerstones of Kleinian theory: the belief that an infant has the inherent ability to relate to objects (other people), the duality of life and death instincts and that all our experience are accompanied by omnipresent phantasies, which are the mental expression of the activities of the life and death instincts (Klein 1952). It is necessary first to explain what these terms are, as they form the framework of Kleinian theory. An object refers to that which the subject (the infant) relates, for example the mother. Klein (1952) writes that the infant is born with the innate ability to establish object relationships by separating good experience ("want and have") from bad experience ("want and not have") in the primary relationship with the primary caregiver. A key element is the effect of internalised relations with primary caregivers (usually the mother in Kleinian theory, but now recognised as either parents or caregivers). Phantasies are the unconscious representations of the individual’s experiences (Klein 1952). They are phantasies the ego has about itself and its relation to internal objects, which form the basis of the structure of the individual’s personality (Bronstein 2001). Life and death instincts may more easily be understood in layman's terms as love and hatred, which are in conflict with one another throughout an individual’s life. The life and death instincts are instincts to connect and disconnect, order and disorder, reality and dissolution. It is these conflicts which cause anxiety and conflict within the individual, as will be explained further below.


Object Relations Theory and Infant Development

"It is characteristic of the emotions of the very young infant that they are of an extreme and powerful nature." - Melanie Klein

The first months of an infant’s life are dominated by anxiety. These anxieties are caused by the death instinct, and the trauma of the birth experience, hunger, bodily pains and frustration. The infant experiences a tumult of emotions and the only understanding it has is of experiencing in the moment. One can certainly see how this applies to infants in the early stages: they cry because they are hungry, they have a soiled nappy, or because they experience bodily pain (such as teething). From birth to the first few months of life, the infant occupies what Klein termed the paranoid-schizoid position (Klein 1952). The paranoid-schizoid position groups primitive-nature anxieties that threaten the ego and trigger primitive defences such as splitting, projection and introjection, all of which are focused on the survival of the self (Steiner 1987). Based on the visible physical acts of an infant, these Kleinian terms are based on feeding (introjection) and excreting waste (projection). In the paranoid-schizoid position, the infant divides their world into either “good” or “bad”. The infant attempts to internalise the “good”, and expel the “bad” outside of themselves. The “good” becomes “me” and the “bad” becomes “not me”. The mechanisms by which the “good/me” and the “bad/not me” is created is the process of splitting. Splitting is an early coping mechanism utilised by the infant. The Kleinian concept of ‘splitting’ can refer to internal splitting of the ego into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or splitting of an external object into 'good’ or ‘bad’. The infant creates two mental images of the same object, for instance, the “good breast” and the “bad breast”. The ego capacities of a young infant are much lower than those of a more developed adult, as they cannot satisfy their own somatic needs and are vulnerable. So it is impossible for the infant to see the bad, the impossible, as part of them. But the breast or the mother is seen as coming from the infant, as that is what gives them ego strength. The “good breast” refers to the mother who provides for the infant’s needs. The “bad breast” is the mother who is unable to provide for the infant’s needs.


Kleinian Defence Mechanisms

With introjection, the infant takes on an aspect of the “other” as its own, or its experiencing of the other as part of its own identity. Projection is an alternative coping mechanism by which the ego disowns certain feelings, characteristics or qualities and attribute them to an external object. Projection is where the infant dispels aspects of its own self, or its experiencing. Projection takes place with aspects of the self or experiencing which the infant deems to be threatening or unpleasant. Splitting and projection always go hand in hand, and leads to a perception of the “other” as bad. On a societal level this is often played out as us v. them, (perhaps most recently seen in the UK with the divide over ‘Brexit’ and ‘Remain’).

In contrast, in the depressive position objects begin to integrate, there is an increase of the symbolic and reparative capacity, and the primitive-nature anxieties get to be symbolised and are no longer perceived as threatening to the self (Steiner 1987). From approximately six months old, the infant moves towards the depressive position. In the depressive position, the infant comes to realise that the “good” and “bad” objects, previously viewed as two separate objects, are in fact one. The fear of being destroyed is overtaken by the fear of destroying the other. This position leads to a more realistic view of the self and objects and leads to an integrated ego. The infant realises the object they wished to destroy is also the one they loved. Consequently, the depressive position is characterised by guilt, rather than anxiety. The infant’s realisation that the perfect, all-gratifying object is also the bad, destructive object facilitates the tolerance of ambivalence and the acceptance of reality is beyond the self. The infant must come to terms with the imperfections of the “real object” (Likierman, 2001: 101).

It is important to note that the paranoid-schizoid position is not the opposite or counterpart to the depressive position. Despite the differences between them, both positions can be thought of as being in a continuum of increasing integration (Roth 2001). It is also not the case that the depressive position is more desirable than the paranoid-schizoid position; both positions have their own complications. Although these positions are presented as linear in terms of early infantile development, regarding emotional life, individuals oscillate between these positions (Kowalski and Bhalla 2018). Kleinian theory brings to light the constellations of anxieties, coping and defence mechanisms and object relations. Familiarity with this schema, even if one does not identify as a strict ‘Kleinian’, allows one to attune to the experiential turmoil of a client predominantly in the paranoid-schizoid position who feels persecuted, and that the self and object is split. It also allows one to attune to the subjective plight of the depressive client who feels more greatly that the self and object is unified, is able to recognise personal psychic reality and its ambivalence, but also identifies overly with the other and may take responsibilities for their feelings (Kowalski and Bhalla 2018).


The Paranoid-Schizoid and Depressive Positions

The longstanding nature of Kleinian theory orientates around the importance of the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. Not only do they represent various stages of early infant development, but they also refer to modes of psychological functioning throughout an individual’s life (Bronstein 2001). A client in the depressive position worries about harm to his ‘objects’, i.e. others, whereas a client in the paranoid-schizoid position will worry about themselves (Bronstein 2001). The depressive position leads to guilt, whereas the paranoid-schizoid position leads to persecution. Those occupying more of the depressive position see people realistically, whereas those in the paranoid-schizoid position tend to see others in a moralistic light as either wholly ‘bad’ or ‘good’.

Steiner stresses the constant interplay between the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions and proposes the construction of a triangular equilibrium between the two positions and what he calls the “pathological organisation” (Steiner 1987, 71). The pathological organisation can be thought of as the client’s way of existing in the world that can cause distress, his or her very own symptomatic configuration that also works as a defence when any of the two positions feels intolerable. It is through processing the emotional aspects of our experience that the depressive anxieties can be tolerated, and object and self-fragmentation can be fought. Klein’s paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions continue to be helpful in describing the mental states of children and adults and provide a working framework that can allow us to understand how change can happen in a psychotherapeutic context.


Using Kleinian Theory in Therapy

Kleinian theory provides a framework for understanding how different clients may react or present in different ways. A client in a depressive position may be debilitated by their own sense of guilt and may view everything as their fault, for instance, other people’s behaviours, thoughts or feelings towards them. A client might be prone to splitting in order to make sense of their experience. A client in a paranoid-schizoid state may preempt persecution.

If the counsellor is able to accept and welcome the part of the client that they themselves dislike it could allow the client to perhaps be reconciled with the part of themselves they dislike. If the counsellor shows the client that they will not be persecuted, it could enable the client to move from a paranoid-schizoid position to a more depressive position in the counselling room. If a counsellor is able to sufficiently contain their client so that the client can tolerate their anxiety, it could mean that the ego defence mechanisms of splitting and paranoid-schizoid functioning is less prevalent. The client becomes more able to bear complex or difficult emotional experiences without it eradicating anything good. The dangers of being ambiguous with word choices are evident, as a client who is more located within the paranoid-schizoid position may read into and interpret the statement, not taking it at face value, and lose contact with the counsellor.


The Importance of Melanie Klein and Object Relations Theory

"It is an essential part of the interpretive work that it should keep in step with fluctuations between love and hatred, between happiness and satisfaction on the one hand and persecutory anxiety and depression on the other." - Melanie Klein

The importance of interpersonal relationships from birth is recognised in many different therapeutic models and practices today. An example of this is Bowlby’s attachment theory which proposed that all infants have an innate drive to form an attachment to the primary caregiver and also drew foundations from Kleinian principles. Readings make much of Klein’s observations of preverbal play and infants. For the first time, Klein wonders what the infant’s experience of the world is like. A relatively new form of therapy for children is ‘Play Therapy’, which has its roots in Klein’s early work regarding infants (Crenshaw et al., 2015). Klein was one of the first to elucidate the use of play in a therapeutic context (Crenshaw et al., 2015). Klein posited that a child’s spontaneous play was an equal substitute to the free association of adults, and that play allowed communication of the child’s unconscious thoughts, emotions, experiences and desires (Crenshaw et al., 2015).

Klein was not well-regarded by her peers during her time, and sadly did not have the happiest of lives. Her contributions are much more recognised today and she was a pioneer in the study of infant's emotional development.

Take Care,




Bronstein, Catalina. 2001. “The Paranoid-Schizoid Position”. In Kleinian Theory: A Contemporary Perspective, 32-46. Whurr Series in Psychoanalysis. London: Whurr.

Casement, Patrick. 1985. “Key Dynamic of Containment”. In On Learning from the Patient, 132-154. Social Science Paperbacks. London: Tavistock/Routledge.

Crenshaw, David A., Anne L. Stewart and Stuart Brown. 2015. “Play Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice”. In Creative Arts and Play Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Klein, Melanie. 1952. “Some Theoretical Conclusions regarding the Emotional Life of the Infant”. In The Writings of Melanie Klein, Volume 8: Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 61-94. London: Hogarth Press.

Kowalski, Christopher and Ruchi Bhalla. 2018. “Viewing the Disney Movie Frozen through a Psychodynamic Lens”. In J Med Humanit 39, 145–150.

Rogers, Carl. 1951. Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory. London: Constable.

Roth, Priscilla. 2001. "The paranoid-schizoid position." In Kleinian Theory: a contemporary perspective, edited by Catalia (ed) Bronstien. London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Merry, Tony. 2002. Learning and Being in Person-centred Counselling. 2nd edition. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Steiner, John. 1987. "The interplay between pathological organizations and the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions." The International journal of psycho-analysis 68, 1, 69.

Waddell, Margot. 2002. “Infancy, Containment and Reverie”. In Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the Growth of the Personality, 29-44. Revised edition. Tavistock Clinic Series. New York: Karnac Books.

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