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The connection between

Object Relations Theory and Attachment Theory

A 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. [See: Ainsworth,
M.D.S. Object relations, dependency, and attachment: a theoretical review of the infant-
mother relation. Child Development, 1969, 40, 969-1025]
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 mentioned 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.
[ See: 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; 1991.]
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-month anxiety’
(sometimes referred to as fear of strangers). His position can be summarised under four
 Observations regarding the age at which withdrawal from strangers commonly
occurs: Spitz holds that this behaviour begins in most infants at about eight months.
 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 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 gaining of an
understanding of the external world shows its value.
7th August 2010