Kernberg generally defines object relations theory as the psychoanalytic study of intrapersonal relations and how intrapsychic structures grow from internalized past relationships with others. Broadly, object relations theory could refer to a general theory of the structures of the mind influenced by interpersonal experiences. More narrowly, object relations theory is a more circumspect approach within psychoanalysis, stressing the construction of structures from internal objects – that is, self-representations linked with object-representations.


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Object An Object is a mental image of a person, a mental image colored with feelings. Kernberg’s work examines the formation of structures within the intrapsychic world of the individual. Objects may be both real or things in one's inner world (one's internalized image of himself/others). Internalizing object relations has three parts: an image of the object in the environment, an image of the self in interaction with the object, and a feeling that colors the object-image and the self-image under the influence of whatever drive present at the time of interaction, ordinarily frustration or pleasure.

An attempt to synthesize Drive Theory from Object Relations was made by Kernberg. By these units, he mixes the drive model and the object relations model by having the self- representation and the object- representation build up under the influence of libidinal and aggressive drives or aspects of drives that filter into experience. Kernberg says that Freud “clearly differentiated drives from instincts”, drive being psychological motivators of behavior and instincts being biological behavior patterns activated by the environment.

Kernberg did not merely say that the units of object relations serve as building blocks of psychic structures. He makes up the claim that they also build up the drives. “Good” and “Bad” mean pleasurable or unpleasurable as well as some level of libidinal or aggressive drives. Good affective experiences serve as the basis for libidinal drives, and bad affective experiences serve as the basis for aggressive drives. In other words, the object-directed feelings of love and hate precede and build up the drives.

Splitting It is an activity which the ego sees differences within the self and within objects or between the self and its objects. A defensive measure, splitting involves an unconscious phantasy by which the ego splits off unwanted aspects of the self or splits threatening objects into more manageable aspects. Kernberg uses the concept of splitting to help understand the formation of distinctions between good and bad self-representations and object-representations in early development.

He understands splitting as a characteristic mechanism in borderline personalities. Good experiences produce islands of good feelings that link up and become organized in increasingly complex ways so that they help form the structures called ego and superego. Bad experiences, on the other hand, continue to produce frustrated feelings. Defenses of splitting keep the bad feeling apart from each other so anxiety cannot contaminate all the parts of the mind of the child.


The process of internalization (or taking in relationships from the environment) has three levels: introjection, identification, and ego identity.

Introjection Introjection is the earliest stage of the process that builds the personality and its structures of ego, id, and superego. In the earliest introjected units, the self-representation and object-representation are not yet differentiated from each other. These units of self- and object-representation gradually become differentiated and crystallized into clear componenets. Splitting helps in the process of differentiation.

The feelings, or affect disposition, are important. If the child has a pleasant oral experience of sucking, such as occurs in a loving mother-child interaction and feeding, then there is instinctual gratification with a positive libidinal feeling attached to the child’s self-image and the object-image of the mother. If frustration or aggression is present in the interaction, the introject(self-mother-bad feeling) is taken in as a bad internal object. The intensity and kind of feeling during the process of introjections influences the fusion of the self-images and object-images as well as the later organization of personality structures.

Introjects of positive/negative feelings are kept apart at this level of development because they can happen separately and because the ego is too immature to integrate feelings that are dissimilar. Splitting or keeping apart dissimilar affective experiences helps modify the intensity of feelings and anxiety. Later, the maturing ego uses this mechanism of splitting more actively for defensive purposes. Introjection plays a key role in when and how the ego is formed. Kernberg believes that some ego functions (perception & memory) exist from the beginning of life. Because the child can see and remember, the child can introject object relations, which serve as early psychic structures.

Identification Identification is a second level and higher form of internalization than introjection. It appears only when the child has matured enough perceptually and cognitively to recognize the role aspects in interactions with people. For example, when a mother helps a child get dressed, she is both initiating and actualizing the role of parent to help, to teach, and so on.

Ego Identity Ego identity is the third and highest level in the internalization process. It refers to the ego and its synthetic function as organizing its identifications and introjects. The ego organizing at this stage results in a consolidation of ego structures so that the child has a sense of the continuity of the self, the self being the self-image that is organized from introjections and identifications. At this stage, internalized object relations, according to Kernberg, are also organized into the representational world, which internally represents the external world. Identity formation means that early primitive identifications are replaced overtime by selective identifications in which only those aspects of the object relation that are in harmony with individual identity formation are internalized. These partial identification are of people who are loved and admired in a realistic way.


Kernberg believes that internal object relations develop into structures of id, ego and superego. Kernberg also views structure formation as a series of developmental stages. Failures in normal development can result in various forms of mental illness or psychopathology.

Stage 1 The earliest stage of development covers the first month of life. Very little occurs during this period that influences the building up of personality structures. Then begins the gradual formation of undifferentiated self-representations and object-representations. Undifferentiated means that the self-representations and object-representations are fused with each other, that there is no sense of distinction between the self and any others.

Problems at this stage would show up in the lack of development of the self- and object-representations and the consequent inability to establish a normal symbiotic relationship with the mother. Such inability to establish a close relationship with the mother is very serious and is called an autistic psychosis.

Stage 2 The second stage runs from the infant’s second month to approximately the sixth or eighth month. Characteristic of this stage is building up and consolidating “good” units of self-object representations. Pleasurable, gratifying experiences that the infant has with its mother during this stage construct images of self that are fused with images of the object (mother), and these images are linked by feelings of pleasure. At the same time that pleasurable experiences build up “good” self-object representations, frustrating experiences build up “bad” self-object representations with painful, frustrating and angry feelings. At this stage, the “good” and “bad” are kept apart from each other by primitive mechanisms of splitting. Stage 2 ends when the self-image becomes differentiated from the object-image within the “good” self-object representation. The “bad” self-object units do not yet differentiate at this stage, and the infant pushes them into the periphery of psychological experience where they are the first sense of an “out there” or a world “outside the self”.

Stage 3 The third stage begins between 6 and 8 months and reaches completion between 18 and 36 months. This stage starts when the self-representation finishes differentiating from the object-representation within the core “good” self-object representation and includes the start of differentiation of the self-object representation from the object-representation within the core “bad”self-object representations. In short, this stage is marked by the differentiation of self- from object-representations, delimiting self from nonself/object.

Stage 3 ends with the eventual integration of “good” and “bad” self-representations into an integrated seld-concept. The integration of “good” and “bad” object-representations into a “total” object representation occurs, which is the achievement of object constancy.

The differentiation of self-image from the object-image contributes to the establishment of stable ego boundaries, which continue to be fragile and fluctuating. Fixation at this stage or a pathological regression to it determines the borderline personality organization.

Stage 4 Stage 4 begins in the latter part of the third year and lasts through the oedipal period, which ends approximately in the sixth year. Characteristic of this stage is the integration of partial images into whole images. “Good” images of the child’s self with pleasurable feelings and “bad” images of the self with aggressive feelings coalesce into a whole self system. Similarly, “bad” representations of the object with angry feelings come together with “good” images of the object(the mother) with pleasurable feelings; the child now has a whole and more realistic representation of the mother.

The ego, superego, and id are consolidated as intrapsychic structures during this period. Ego identity–the overall organization of identifications and introjects – is established during the fourth stage.

The mechanism of repression now becomes mainly a defensive operation of the ego. From this point on, repression separates the id from the ego, and Kernberg has said that the id as a psychic structure comes into existence only at this stage. For Kernberg, the structure of the ego seem to precede the structure of the id, which radically reverses the classical psychoanalytic sequence of the id existing prior to the ego. Kernberg’s reversal of this sequence comes from his emphasis on object relations and the importance of the environment for the formation of the structure of the ego. Some ego functioning needs to be present to relate to objects in the environment.

Stage 5 Kernberg’s fifth stage starts in later childhood with the completion of the integration of the superego. The opposition or conflict between the superego and ego lessens. As the superego becomes integrated, it fosters further integration and consolidation of ego identity. Ego identity continues to evolve by a process of reshaping experiences with external objects in light of internal object-representations, and these internal object-representations are reshaped in light of experiences with actual persons. These experiences, further reshape the self-concept.