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Posted: September 6th, 2023


Object relations theory is a psychodynamic theory that describes the process of developing a mind as one grows in relation to others in the environment. Ronald Fairbairn coined the term “object relations,” and Melanie Klein is most commonly associated with the term “object relations theory.” The theory emphasizes interpersonal relations, primarily in the family and especially between mother and child. Major proponents of object relations theory are Melanie Klein, D.W. Winnicott, and Margaret Mahler.

Major Concepts

Object relations theory guides inner world exploration and recognizes the introjected persons of the past living within the patient’s mind, comprising the person’s psychic structure. An introject refers to the internalized images of others within the patient, and it is the focus of attention of the theory. The “objects” of the theory are both real others in one’s world and one’s internalized image of others. Objects are usually persons, parts of persons, or symbols of one of these. “Object relations” refers to interpersonal relations or specific intrapsychic structures, and “representation” refers to the way the person has or possesses an object.

Psychological Positions

Klein explains two psychological “positions” during the first year of life. The paranoid–schizoid position occurs during the first 6 months of life, and the depressive position occurs during the second 6 months. The paranoid–schizoid position is characterized by the defenses of projection, introjection, projective identification, splitting, idealization, omnipotence, and denial. The depressive position is characterized by depressive anxiety.

Implications to Nursing

Object relations theory helps understand children’s behavior and guides nursing practice. The theory provides a conceptual model for practicing psychodynamic family nursing. Nurses who understand object relations theory can use it to guide their assessment and intervention with patients and their families. The theory helps nurses to understand the importance of early relationships and how they shape an individual’s personality and interpersonal relationships throughout life.

Object relations theory is especially relevant to nursing practice in psychiatric and mental health settings. The theory can be used to understand patients’ relationships with others, including family members, healthcare providers, and others in their social network. Understanding object relations theory can also help nurses to develop therapeutic relationships with patients by recognizing and addressing their emotional needs.


Object relations theory is a useful framework for understanding how relationships with others shape an individual’s personality and interpersonal relationships throughout life. The theory emphasizes the importance of early relationships and their impact on the development of an individual’s personality. Nurses who understand object relations theory can use it to guide their assessment and intervention with patients and their families. By recognizing and addressing patients’ emotional needs, nurses can develop therapeutic relationships that promote healing and recovery.

Kernberg, O. F. (2020). Object relations theory: A personal view. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 37(2), 147-156. doi: 10.1037/pap0000279
Ogrodniczuk, J. S., & Piper, W. E. (2021). Object relations theory: Contemporary developments and clinical implications. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 51(2), 83-89. doi: 10.1007/s10879-020-09521-9

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