This semester the TBIPS first year class is reading Mitchell’s Object Relations Theories and the Developmental Tilt. In it, Mitchell asks (doubts) whether so many diverse theories can go under one theory called Object Relations. But, more importantly, he notes that many Object Relations theorists maintain allegiance to the Freudian drive-conflict model (whose sine qua non of neurosis according to Freud is the Oedipus complex) by simply placing relational issues developmentally earlier than the oedipal stage. He asks, is Object Relations just an extension of drive theory? Or is it altogether new, substituting drive discharge as motivation and the structural theory (ego, id, superego) of mind with object-seeking as motivation and with relational configurations, “relations with others, past and present, real and imaginary” (mental representations of part/whole objects, in Object Relational terminology, and how they interact with each other) as the makeup of the mind?
Mitchell sees assimilation of Object Relations theory into drive theory as mixing apples and oranges. He says that assimilating Object Relations, through what he calls the” developmental tilt,” into drive theory risks designating lifelong needs of relationship as pathology:
“these innovations have been introduced into psychoanalytic theory via the developmental tilt; consequently, the dynamic issues they depict tend to get characterized as infantile, pre-oedipal, immature, and their persistence in later life is often regarded as a residue of infantilism, rather than as an expression of human relational needs extending throughout the life cycle.”
Mitchell believes contrivances such as regarding “relational issues as prior to drive issues”, were required by ego psychologists (who privilege drive and defense, ie the structural conflict model) in order to assimilate Object Relations. Mitchell does not conceive that relational issues “emerge sequentially over the course of early infancy, becoming progressively resolved” but says they instead persist throughout life.
Furthermore, the developmental tilt risks, Mitchell contends, infantilizing patients by casting the analytic relationship in an infant-mother dyad:
“…instead of conceptualizing these dimensions of the analytic relationship as providing the patient with a richer, more complex, more adult kind of intimacy that his previous psychopathology allowed him to experience, the developmental tilt leads to a view of these dimensions essentially as developmental remediations…”
Consequently, spontaneous gestures as evidence of new relationship (such as Balint’s somersaulting patient) are viewed not as a ‘forward edge’ [Tolpin], but as a regression to the old and are pathologized: their “evidence later in life is regarded as a regressive residue of very early disturbance.” When Object Relations theory is “positioned via classical theory” through the developmental tilt, psychoanalytic “interaction is collapsed into mother-infant terms.” Similarly “the need for tenderness throughout life”… is collapsed “into the infant's need for tenderness from the mother … depicted as regressive, unresolved residues from earliest childhood” [and] “depicted as [the] …only developmental forum in which such needs make sense.”
Mitchell agrees with contemporary theorists on the importance of the real relationship, as well as of what is new:
“the analytic relationship has been understood as more and more of a real and new relationship than previously. For Freud, the relationship with the analyst was a re-creation of past relationships, a new version struck from the original "stereotype plate" (Freud, 1912). The here-and-now relationship was crucial, but as a replication, as a vehicle for the recovery of memories, the filling in of amnesias, which cured the patient. Contemporary views of the analytic relationship tend to put more emphasis on what is new in the analytic relationship. The past is still important, but as a vehicle for understanding the meaning of the present relationship with the analyst, and it is in the working through of that relationship that cure resides.”
I find I agree with Mitchell’s ideas, especially the need for relationship and tenderness being lifelong (just as Kohut posited a lifelong requirement for self object experiences) and can dust off my previously long constrained (anonymous, abstinent) self to participate with my patients in the therapeutic endeavor toward new experience co-creating new ‘templates [Herzog].’
Mitchell, S.A. (1984). Object Relations Theories and the Developmental Tilt. Contemp. Psychoanal., 20:473-499.