Object Relations Theory and the Mom Factor

Mom & toddler girl taking selfie joyfully in cafe

Getty Images / Images by Tang Ming Tung

Object relations theory is centered on our internal 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 or physical items that come to symbolically represent either a person or part of a person. Object relations, then, are our internalized relationships to those people.

An aspect of the evolution of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, object relations theory developed during the late 1920s and 1930s and became important in shaping psychoanalytic theory 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 our relationships with people.

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

According to the object relations theory, the way mothers and infants interact plays a crucial role in infant growth and development. If care is adequate or "good enough," children are able to develop their true selves, which is the part of the baby that is creative and spontaneous.

If the care is inadequate, children 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 authentic self. Over time, acceptable parental care that will create the true self includes the following stages:

  • Father, mother, and infant, all three living together: The dynamics and interactions that the child experiences in relationship to the mother and father influence the child's experience and expectations of what family relationships will be like later in life.
  • Holding: Actual physical affection and holding including cuddling, holding hands, or lap sitting is familiar and regular behavior in satisfactory parental care. These later become internalized as a sense of psychological "holding."
  • Mother and infant living together: -Experiencing the daily routine of both psychological and physical care such as eating, grooming, and interacting through mundane tasks are important for the baby's proper development.

Object relations theory holds that a problem with any of these important experiences can cause issues in developing healthy relationships later in life.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Goldstein EG. Object relations theory and self psychology in social work practice. New York: The Free Press; 2001.

  • Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Theory of mind in autism.

  • Scharff JS, Scharff DE. The primer of object relations (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 2005.

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.