Thursday, May 21, 2015

Object Relations

According to the Wikipedia, object relations theory is explained as follows:

Based on psychodynamic theory, the object relations theory suggests that the way people relate to others and situations in their adult lives is shaped by family experiences during infancy. For example, an adult who experienced neglect or abuse in infancy would expect similar behavior from others who remind them of the neglectful or abusive person from their past. These images of people and events turn into objects in the subconscious that the person carries into adulthood, and they are used by the subconscious to predict people's behavior in their social relationships and interactions.

 From the perspective of object relations theory, our ability to have healthy relations to others, to strangers, and perhaps even our enemies, is dependent on having healthy relations in infancy and early childhood with our parents.  The relationship of love is always personal, and distinct from the love of things.  We love who the other person is, and not merely, or even primarily, what they are.

For example, a baby loves their mother, but "motherhood" is a role.  Babies do not love "mothers" nor do they love "motherhood"--they have no way of conceptualizing these abstract concepts at an early age.  No doubt they like milk, and having their diaper changed, and the like, but they love their mother, and are bonded to their mother.  If you take a baby, say ninth months old, and suddenly take mom completely out of the picture, and put another competent care giver in the picture (perhaps even a more competent care giver), you cause emotional problems to the baby, which may manifest in emotional problems later in life.  Love begin in an I-Thou relationship.

Now if we are Freudian, and we see people as more or less organic machines, then object-relations becomes a prophesy.  If in early childhood the child has bad parents, or a bad relationship to the parents (however virtuous they may be), then they are destined to have bad relationships in adulthood to others--and this very well could be the case.  But if we are to hold out hope, that human beings in human relationships must be healed, then it may be important to craft an ideal, the ideal parent, who demonstrates total sacrifice and total love for the child.  Strangely enough, through this relationship to the ideal parent, the child may come to heal relationships with the less-than-ideal but actual parents, and well as the less-than-ideal but actual strangers in the world of the grown adult.  Moreover, while ideals are nice, they are bloodless.  Better than the ideal but abstract parent would be the ideal but actual parent, who's example we might imitate.  By entering into relationship with this person, we may be able to heal our suffering and live better lives.  The draw back to this approach is that our ideal but actual parent might die--this could only possibly work as a cultural system if the ideal parent did not die, or if they died, they were resurrected.

Of course, this sort of thing is impossible, and we would regard such talk, or the belief in such talk, as foolish.  But on the other hand, what if it worked?  What if people were able to experience inner transformation as a result of the cultivation of such a relationship?  Would we say that we witnessed a miracle, or are such people merely queer in the head and deluded?  Do they "know" something the rest of us do not, or are they "ignorant" of the real facts?  I don't think it is mine to say for another how they should or should not take these matters.

On the other hand, going back to my previous post on grammar, I should like to tie together the point that it is only out of the "I-Thou" relationship, a relations between persons who know each other, that it is possible to have relations with a "I-he" or "I-she"--proper relations between people who do not know each other, at least very well.  In these second type of relationship, the factor of what the person is (friend, stranger, enemy), not who the person is, predominates.  Thus, we find in Matthew, Chapter 22, Verses 36-40 the following exchange:

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
It is clear in this passage that the primary relationship, the greatest and most important relationship, is an "I-Thou" relationship.  It is only on account of this first relationship that love--a love infused with personalty--is possible in the second kind of relationship, between "I-neighbor".  Without this first relationship, the temptation to reify and objectify the neighbor becomes too strong, and the neighbor (stranger/enemy) becomes de-humanized and reduced to an "it".  It has been claimed by some that the first relationship can be dispensed with, one only needs to love one's neighbor, and everything will be okay.  This is a fair statement, but the problem it faces is that it presumes that "love" is something a human being does naturally, perhaps turns on like a light switch.  In my limited experience of the human condition, it seems to me that actual love of another person, especially a stranger or an enemy, is about the most unnatural thing humanly possible.  That is to say, love is a skill that has to be learned, and is perhaps the most difficult of all skills to master.  Perhaps your actual parents were perfect, and you can effortlessly imitate their example.  My actual parents were not perfect, and even so, I still find it is quite difficult to imitate their best examples.  Imitating their vices doesn't seem to present me with anything near the same difficulty.

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