The concept of object relations in psychoanalytic writings means relations with significant others and their internal representations, starting with infancy and the mother (object in psychoanalytic writings always refers to another person). Primitive, early, object relations are the starting point for personality development. Whereas, for Freud, the drive-based quest for sensuous gratification conditions the structure of the personality, these theorists argue that the individual seeks relationships before seeking gratification. The pattern taken by the individual's relationship with others, internalized during early childhood, structures the adult personality as well as adult spirituality.
What is known as psychoanalytic object-relations theory represents the psychoanalytic study of the nature and origins of interpersonal relations and of the nature and origins of internal, unconscious structures deriving from interpersonal contacts and experiences. Present interpersonal relationships are regarded as the reactivation of past internalized relations with others. Psychoanalytic object-relations theory focuses upon the internalization of interpersonal relations, their contribution to normal and pathological personality development, and the mutual influences of internal fantasies and the reality of interpersonal relations. Individual personality is formed through objectrelations patterns that are set up in early childhood, become stable in later childhood and adolescence, and then are fixed during adult life. The functioning of the adult personality depends on the maturity of one's object relations. Object-relations theorists propose that the ego, which is the center of the personality, seeks objects, and this is the basic drive animating the human personality. The role played by the mother's constant presence during the first stages of life makes it the factor around which personality is organized. The mode by which one manages one's dependence on and differentiation from the mother is the structuring force of the individual mind. Psychoses and neuroses are accounted for by the complications of parental care rather than by eruptions of repressed desire. Motivations experienced by the individual's body alone are thus de-emphasized, and correspondingly, the formative significance of relating to others is played up. Sexuality is demoted to a secondary role. It may complicate the relationship with the object, but it does not by itself constitute that relationship. Body sensations carry messages but are not equivalent to the contents of these messages. Communication is channeled through the surface of the body, the sensitivity of which intensifies with the child's age. At all stages, bodily sensation is a means rather than an end of communication.
While classical psychoanalytic theory viewed the personality as an information-processing system in touch (or out of touch) with reality, in object-relations theory the emphasis is on internalized and projected ideas, leading to a total distortion of reality. Compared to classical approaches, object-relations theory is even more pessimistic. It views personality as less reality oriented, and its structure as determined earlier in life. While in Freud's version the "critical period" in personality development is the Oedipal stage, years 3 to 6 of life; it is during the first year that objectrelations patterns are determined.
The common core of classical psychoanalytic theory and object-relations theory can be summarized in the two concepts of desire (for an object or for instinctual gratification), and separation from the object. Both approaches agree that it all starts with the young child and its understanding of sex, birth, and family relations, with the resulting confused ideas that stay with us forever. Object-relations theory says that the process all starts very early, which means that the cognitive confusion is greater and deeper.
Winnicott asserted that at the original point from which all humans start there is already a relationship. The baby is an aggregate of sensations and body parts without an organizing principle. This may only be provided by the parent "who is holding the child" physically and whose presence functions as an external perimeter that contains the various stimuli and so orders them into a meaningful whole. Thus, relationship precedes individuality. There is no such thing as a baby, because there is always attached to it someone caring for the baby. The lack of individual separateness in the initial stages of life goes beyond the fact of physical dependence. It involves the absence of inner cohesion.
At this point the child creates what Donald W. Winnicott calls the transitional object. This object appears when the reassuring internal representation of the mother is projected onto a tangible item, such as a blanket or a soft toy, which the child invests with special meaning and identity. The transitional object helps the child bridge the frustration of parental unavailability. That object is simultaneously internal and external: it carries a subjective meaning, but being tangible, it is also objectively perceived. In later life the soft toy or blanket is substituted by games, artistic creativity, and intellectual discussion. Such activities provide individuals with spaces where they can externalize their internal images.
The rise of object-relations theory and the attention given to pre-Oedipal experiences (preceding the age of 3) have broadened the scope of the basic psychoanalytic view of personal and cultural phenomena. This theory in particular provides a good basis for understanding the world of spirits in relation to the internal world of objects.
Regarding religious beliefs, object-relations theorists follow Sigmund Freud in viewing any religious belief system as based on projections. While Freud emphasized the projection of the father, the so-called Oedipal object, object-relations theory suggests that what is projected is the maternal image, formed earlier in the child's development. The objective existence of the caring figure, without whom the infant would not survive, is the source of fantasies about caring spirits, who promise eternal love and boundless happiness. As the developing child internalizes hope and trust, he comes to live within an inner psychic universe of unseen but providential presences. When he is subsequently introduced to supernaturalist beliefs through cultural experience (God, the angels), he takes to it naturally.
Cultural fantasies expressed in so-called mystical experiences reflect an attempt to recreate the mother-child symbiotic encounter. The early experience of creating a substitute for the mother, known as the transitional object, is the model for cultural rituals and beliefs. This experience is one case of transitional states, where a real stimulus near the person starts a fantasy process in which object relations are projected on it. This "substance of illusion," as Winnicott described it, is the starting point for the creation of art and religion.
The behavior in an individual of turning to "spiritual search" is most likely to be caused by a loss of a significant other or a significant relationship. This search makes possible an imaginary contact with the lost object. Loss or absence in the child's relations with parental figures may lead to the appearance of religious experiences.