“The bond between a parent and child is the primary bond, the foundation for the rest of the child’s life. The presence or absence of this bond determines much about the child’s resiliency and what kind of adult they will grow up to be.”
These words from Jane Fonda, actress and writer, sum up the core principle of Object Relations Therapy.
In this form of psychotherapy, the parent-child bond is fundamental to a child’s development. A supportive, healthy parent-child relationship can set the stage for a balanced life, while an unhealthy or abusive dynamic can open the door to mental health issues, trauma, and addiction.
What is Object Relations Therapy?
Object Relations Theory developed over time, with contributions from many leading psychologists including Sándor Ferenczi, Donald Winnicott, Melanie Klein, and Ronald Fairbairn.
According to the International Psychotherapy Institute, Object Relations Theory states “that the infant’s experience in relationship with the mother, or primary caregiver, is the primary determinant of personality formation and that the infant’s need for attachment is the motivating factor in the development of the infantile self.”
Translation: your connection with your primary caregiver is fundamental to your self-concept and personal development.
Furthermore, in Object Relations the therapist-to-client relationship is seen as a mirror of the mother-to-child relationship. In this view, the therapist-to-client bond is crucial, as it allows an individual to create the type of healing bond they may have missed during childhood.
Additionally, if the term “Object Relations” sounds confusing, here’s why. In this case “objects” doesn’t refer to physical items such as a desk or a chair.
Instead, “objects” refers to a person’s key relationships, particularly those involving a parent or caregiver. Ever heard the phrase, “the object of my affection”? Then you get the idea.
Overlap with Developmental Psychology
Object Relations Therapy also connects with the principles of psychosocial development, which tell us that mental and emotional wounds at certain life stages impact particular aspects of our psychological growth.
For example, Developmental Psychology tells us that when we’re very small – ages zero to three – we’re learning about trust. On a fundamental level, our life experience during this time shapes whether or not we’ll be able to trust people for the rest of our lives.
If you had traumatic early life experiences such as parental abandonment during this pivotal time, it’s likely that you find it hard to trust people. It’s also likely that you’re unconsciously re-creating the traumas you experienced in an effort to make sense of your past.
The good news is that Object Relations Therapy provides one way for you to receive the nurturing and bonding you didn’t receive in childhood. It allows you to treat your developmental wounds and thereby stop the addictive cycle.
Why Object Relations Therapy for Addiction Treatment?
Object Relations Therapy is a helpful strategy for addiction treatment because it targets the mental and emotional anguish that leads people to use. It seeks to create a secure, healthy attachment and thus rebuild an individual’s precarious sense of self.
In the framework of Object Relations, childhood pain is the cause of present-day upset. The idea is that a safe, stable relationship will help heal and resolve that early-life pain. As such, the client works closely with a therapist, creating a trusting therapist-to-client relationship and releasing past anguish.
In our dual diagnosis treatment Program, we actually take this principle one step further. We teach Participants to create an adult-to-child bond within themselves. This empowers them to act in their own best interests on a day-to-day basis, even when they aren’t able to connect with their therapists.
How Object Relations Therapy Works
Though techniques will vary depending on which therapist you see, here’s a general overview of how Object Relations Therapy works.In the initial stages, you as the client will share stories and reflections about your early-life experience, and your therapist will listen and ask clarifying questions. You’ll discuss your particular family dynamics, as well as other key relationships that shaped your worldview in your early years.
As you build a stronger bond with your therapist, he or she will support you in sharing the most painful experiences you’ve had with your caregivers. You’ll uncover the truth about trauma in your life, and how it connects with your addictive behaviors.
Together, you’ll explore how your past experiences impacted your life and shaped your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. All the while, you’ll form a strong, supportive connection with your therapist and receive the kind of relational grounding you may have missed in childhood.
To facilitate this bond, your therapist may use techniques from Person-Centered Therapy, such as heart-centered listening, praising, silence, and asking open-ended questions.
One final word of clarification: the idea behind Object Relations Therapy is not for you to become overly dependent upon your therapist; rather, the goal is that – from the safe, foundational therapeutic space – you’ll be free to form stronger, healthier relationships with others outside of therapy as well.
And as we teach in our Program, you can go even deeper by using self-counseling skills to become your own therapist.
As one of our co-founders, Dr. Scott Alpert, wrote, “What is important to realize is that virtually everybody has the capacity to take dominion over their own inner self.”
That’s the end goal of all therapy, really: to take dominion over your inner self, to steward and care for it, and thereby empower yourself to make a positive contribution to the lives of others as well.