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The connection between

Object Relations theory and Attachment theory

Alan Challoner MA (Phil) MChS

I believe the connection is one of continuity and the gaining of understanding of the
external world. The purpose of attachment is to extend the period of dependency in
early childhood in order to accomplish the brain development that some species (in
part) achieve during the pre-birth period. It allows the infant to come to terms with its
place in society safely and securely whilst it develops the knowledge of how it has to
relate to others.
Technically object relations refers to the mental representations of the self and others
(the object), which are an aspect of ego organization, and not to external interpersonal
relationships. For further reading see Greenberg, J. R.; & Mitchell, S. A. Object
relations in psychoanalytic theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press; 1983.
Human beings are characterised by the way they make strong affectional relationships
with each other. Before attachment theory was developed, the parent-child relationship
had been put into a comparable perspective by Karen Horney (1885-1952). Like Freud
she had understood childhood relationships with parents to be of great importance. She
understood how dependent infants were, and how much they suffered when treated
badly by them. The feelings of insecurity that they developed were called by Horney,
basic anxiety.
Attachment theory has extended over the years since it was first introduced by Bowlby.
It was based on a psychoanalytic theoretical hypothesis and the British object relations
school. In the beginning it was concerned with mother-child separation, and Bowlby’s
work in this area was continued by Robertson and Ainsworth. The latter, with Wittig,
developed the strange-situation theory and they published their work in 1969. Since
then Main’s work on the psychological, internal, or representational aspects of
attachment, including the inter-generational transmission of attachment patterns (which
had been at the centre of Bowlby’s interests); and the study of attachment relationships
between adults, has also generated considerable research activity. This includes
interpretations of children’s drawings; the form taken by internal representation and
whether these follow formal logic.[ Main. M. Metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive
monitoring, and singular (coherent) vs. Multiple (incoherent) model of attachment:
Findings and directions for future research. In Parkes, C.M.; Stevenson-Hinde, J. &
Marris, P. [Eds.]. Attachments Across the Life Cycle. Tavistock/Routledge, London;
Others have proposed differing views and those of; Spitz’s are restated in his book, The
First Year of Life (1965). The main feature of his position is that true object relations
are held not to be established before eight months.
In reaching this conclusion Spitz anchors his argument to what he terms ‘eight-months
anxiety’ (sometimes referred to as fear of strangers). His position can be summarised
under four heads:
• Observations regarding the age at which withdrawal from strangers commonly
occurs: Spitz holds that this behaviour begins in most infants at about eight
• An assumption that withdrawal from strangers cannot be due to fear: since the
stranger can have caused the infant no pain or displeasure, the infant, in Spitz’s
view, can have no reason to fear him.
• A theory that withdrawal from strangers is, therefore, not a withdrawal from
something frightening, but instead a form of separation anxiety: “what (an

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infant) reacts to when confronted with a stranger is that this (person) is not his
mother; his mother ‘has left him’. . . ”. (1965, p.155).
• An inference, drawn from data and theory, regarding the age at which a child
discriminates his mother-figure and develops ‘a true object relation’. Spitz writes
(1965, p. 156):
• “We assume that this capacity (to identify strangers) in the eight-month-old child
reflects the fact that he has now established a true object relation, and that the
mother has become his libidinal object, his love object. Before this we can hardly
speak of love, for there is no love until the loved one can be distinguished from
all others. . . .”
Bowlby criticised this view on the basis that fear is not just about prior experience from
someone or something that has given pain or displeasure. He argued that strangeness
is sufficient of itself to be a cause of fear in someone so young. The other evidence he
put forward was that the fear response is quite separate from separation anxiety as a
baby can show stranger anxiety even when his mother is visibly present. A third point
that Bowlby makes is that there is plenty of evidence to show that an infant can
discriminate familiar from unfamiliar faces long before he shows stranger anxiety.
I think that Bowlby may have caused some confusion by his use of the term, internal
working model, to describe the individual’s internal representation of the world, his
attachment figures, himself, and the relations between them. Amongst other things, the
internal working model is expected to contain an approximate sketch of the
environment and the self which can be mentally manipulated prior to undertaking
possible future action.
The possible reason for the confusion is in the understanding of consciousness. There is
a radical discontinuity between the “I” who is conscious (of something) and the “me”
that I am conscious of. As Kenneth Wright has pointed out: Knowledge about oneself
exists in a different space from both the space within which one acts, instinctively or
otherwise, in the world and the inner representation of that action space which
consciously guides our behaviour in relation to objects of the world. Consciousness
(knowledge) of oneself exists in a virtual, or may be a conceptual, space. Our
unconscious “knowledge” of the world and our unconscious intentions and aims in
relation to objects are “written” in quite a different place-engraved in our body as
templates for action and not separated from us by any distance at all.
The ability to know what, where, when, how etc., is also of value in object relations. It is
important not to underestimate early communication and language here. The progress
towards reading starts almost immediately after birth by imitative sounds, or
approximations to them. This has been preceded by interchanges of smiles and other
visual representations of affect.
The infant soon learns by the quality and strength of his parent’s approbation when he
is getting things right. The next stage is the recognition by the child that the value of
language is in the passing on of messages. From this he acquires the ability to
understand how things are said in addition to what is said.
As adults we need to be able to communicate successfully, and I believe that
attachment and object relations theories give a view of how this may be accomplished.
Having survived childhood (the first reason for attachment) we then have to survive
adulthood, and it is in this area where continuity and the prior gaining of an
understanding of the external world shows its value.

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