Object relations theory has its origins in the psychoanalytic perspective, and like Freudian psychoanalytic theory, it places emphasis on the assumption that relationships in adulthood are shaped by family experiences during childhood. The approach also assumes that unconscious motivation plays an important role in human development and behaviour. Unlike the Freudian approach, however, object relations theory does not assume that motivation is driven by the pleasure principle, but rather that people are autonomously motivated to form object relationships. In this context, the ‘objects’ are internalized images of significant events and people in one’s life, which are formed during childhood and held in the unconscious throughout life.
The Austrian-born British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein was one of the first psychologists associated with the theory, which she presented in her books The Psychoanalysis of children (1932) and Contributions to Psychoanalysis (1921-1945, 1948) The theory was later built upon by Otto F. Kernberg, Heinz Kohut and Ronald Fairbairn.