Psychodynamic Theory - Part 2
Object Relations Theory
Views of Motivation
The two principles of Psychic Determinism and the Unconscious provide an approach, or strategy, for thinking about people, but they do not specify the contents of our unconscious impulses, fears, wishes, defenses, etc. There is more than one way to conceptualize the contents of the unconscious: Freud proposed one conceptualization (defined by the Drive Discharge view of human motivation; that Libido and Aggression are the prime human drives; and that personality functioning is best conceptualized as a battle between bodily instincts (Id) and moral values (Superego) mediated by concerns for safety and competence (Ego)). There are two or three other branches of psychoanalytic thinking, however, which reject the Freudian conceptualization and 'fill in the blanks' of the unconscious with different ideas. The one branch that I will tell you about here is Object Relations Theory ("object relations" means interpersonal relations).
Object Relations (OR) Theory sees people as fundamentally motivated to be connected to other people, and it is the management of:
1) unconscious fears about relating to others (fears of being abandoned, rejected, engulfed, intruded upon, etc.),
2) wishes for connection to others (wishes for omnipotent control over others, to be symbiotically merged with another person, to be admired by others, etc.),
3) expectations about how others will react to us, and
4) fantasies about how we should behave with others
that is of interest to OR clinicians.
Freudians believe that people are fundamentally motivated to discharge instinctual energy, and so they tend to see pursuits of self-esteem, closeness, physical contact, success, etc., as ultimately in the service of the discharge of sexual energy. To put it bluntly: for a Freudian, other people matter to us only because they are potentially useful vehicles for the discharge of our sexual and aggressive drives. OR theorists assert the primacy of interpersonal relations: they say that connection to other people is the primary human motivation.
OR theory takes sexuality and aggression out of the special category of 'fundamental biological drives' and instead categorizes them, with many other desires, as 'appetites'. This allows the observer to see more clearly the ways in which the pursuit of sexual gratification, for example, can have many psychological purposes. Sexual activity can be a means of achieving closeness and intimacy, a way of proving attractiveness and self worth, a way to express dominance and power, a way to experience a sense of competence, or even a way to be rebellious. As you can see, in these instances sex is not seen as an activity solely related to sexual discharge - it is seen as an avenue through which people seek what they need from other people. From an OR point of view all significant psychological events and activities can be boiled down in this way to unconscious management of our connection (in the real world or in our minds) to other people.
OR theorists also reject the Freudian concept of personality structure consisting of Id, Ego, and Superego. Instead, they see people as structured according to internalized maps or cognitive schemas that tell us how we should relate to other people and how other people will relate to us. These maps, although they exert a powerful control over our behavior and feelings, are largely unconscious. They determine how we will pursue closeness with other people, how we expect to be hurt by other people, how to express anger, how to please, etc. These unconscious rules/maps for what roles to play with people begin to be established very early in life, and the older we get the harder it is to alter those maps and act differently.
When applying OR theory to real people in clinical situations, a psychologist/ psychiatrist is trying to answer the following questions: What old relationship is being repeated in the present, and which of the roles in the relationship is the person enacting - his own or that of the other? Is the person behaving like the person he was, or like the person he wished to be in his parents' eyes? Is he behaving like they did toward him, or the way he wished they would behave toward him? These questions are based on the idea that all significant early relationships (mother-child, father-child, sibling-child, etc.) get repeated in action later in life.
Why? There are four main explanations:
1) The desire to master a traumatic experience,
2) The generic desire to seek out familiarity and predictability,
3) Because of deficits in the skills needed to act/feel differently. Limited skill sets tend to produce a limited range of behaviors/relationships: we create, re-create the same circumstances unwittingly because of this, and
4) The desire to repeat a pleasure experience.
In attempting to master a traumatic childhood experience, such as chronic criticism and rejection by a mother, an adult can re-enact the role he (unwittingly) played in the family drama. He could do this by seeking out a critical and rejecting wife, in an effort to somehow "get it right this time" by reacting to rejection differently than he did as a kid and getting his wife to treat him better. Of course, this unconscious fantasy of repeating and mastering often only leads to repetition: the man now has a wife who treats him like his mother did and he doesn't really know how to get her to stop. This is an illustration of one kind of Repetition Compulsion.
Conversely, he could attempt to master the trauma by reversing the roles in adulthood: he could behave toward his wife the way his mother behaved toward him. Here the unconscious hope is that his wife will handle this poor treatment with the strength and self-assuredness that he did not have as a child (and still lacks today), allowing him to learn from her a new way to feel about oneself. This is an example of Mastery Through Reversal of Voice.
In general, emotional pathology is judged, from an OR perspective, by the degree to which current behavior and one's perception of current reality are determined by internally carried maps of relationships from the past rather than by current reality itself.
Psychological Development from OR Perspective
Psychological development is seen in essence as a matter of Separation (from the mother at first and then from other caretakers as well) and Individuation (that is, the development of the sense of oneself as a unique individual with power, autonomy, control, etc.). The task of separating and individuating begins at birth and proceeds through a series of rough stages:
Note: the capacity to be alone is seen as a key psychological development, as are the related cognitive abilites for whole object representation and emotional object constancy.
1) Normal Autism: birth to age 2 months. In this stage the infant is only fleetingly attentive to external reality - due to the immaturity of perceptual and cognitive processes - and is preoccupied with internal stimuli (hunger, fatigue, discomfort). The infant does not yet have a concept of the external world and is in a vague cognitive haze in which needs for food and tactile stimulation are magically satisfied.
2) Normal Symbiosis: ages 2 to 4/5 months. The child has begun to attend to the world, is aware of external stimuli, particularly those associated with the mother, but does not perceive the mother as a separate person. The child experiences itself as fused with the mother, as sharing a common boundary with her, and has a vague feeling of omnipotence if mother is attentive to its needs because it seems to the infant that all it has to do is desire something to make that thing appear (in other words, the infant does not understand cause and effect).
3) Bodily Separation: 4/5 months to 10 months. Through its activities (rolling, crawling, grabbing) and as a result of the maturation of its perceptual and cognitive apparatus, the child begins to realize that she and the mother are physically separate. This realization is anxiety-provoking, however, and the child will periodically move back to her mother to reassure herself of mother's presence.
4) Practicing Stage: 10 months to 14/15 months. This stage is marked by greater mobility skills, culminating with the ability to walk. Children at this age feel on top of the world, as if they can master anything and that a whole new world has been opened up to them. This is the peak of the child's feelings of omnipotence, but this feeling of being all-powerful is still linked to the presence of the mother as the child's 'security blanket'.
Note: the OR concept of "good-enough mothering" consists of not being too distant or too close, geographically or emotionally.
5) Rapprochement Stage: 14/15 months to 24 months. During this stage the child becomes more aware of its separateness from the mother. Its joyous sense of omnipotence vanishes as a result of this realization and it begins to feel small, deflated, weak, and helpless. This is the beginning of the Rapprochement Crisis: the child must master the fact of its separateness - a task that we all continue to work on and struggle with into adulthood, a process known as the "consolidation of individuality".