Feelings and Relations

In an object-relational perspective, feelings stem from and are shaped in and through relations. In particular, but not exclusively, this begins in our first relations of love and dependency. Early identifications with caretakers, or aspects of them, are the way in which the human subject and psychic reality first come into being: Melanie Klein stated that object-relations are the centre of emotional life. The subject’s feeling of its own self and others is differentiated from these early experiences with relations through processes of transference, projections and introjective fantasies—feelings of who I am, who I can or cannot be in relationships with others:

The child, by internalizing aspect of the parent, also internalizes the parent’s image of the child—an image that is mediated to the child in the thousand different ways of being handled, bodily and emotionally ... The bodily handling of and concern with the child, the manner in which the child is fed, touched, cleaned, the way it is looked at, talked to, called by name, recognized and re-recognized—all these and many other ways of communication with the child, and communicating to him his identity, sameness, unity, and individuality, shape and mould him so that he can begin to identify himself, to feel and recognize himself as one and as separate from others and yet with others. (Loewald 1980: 229-230)

The basic feelings of self and others are prior to mental representations and language and will become part of what Christopher Bollas has coined the individual’s ‘unthought known’ (Bollas 1987: 280). The unthought known is an operational logic of ‘being and relating’: through countless intersubjective exchanges with the infant and its object world, ‘sometimes in tranquillity, often in intense conflict’, the unthought known comes to constitute the subject’s ego-structure. Thus, ‘ego-structure is a trace of a relationship’ (Bollas 1987: 51-60). This also means that agency is formed and takes shape in relationships (Layton 2004: 47). Layton’s concept of the normative unconscious refers to relational conflicts where the child split off aspects of itself to maintain love, and where these aspects will survive in the unconscious and be seen in behavioural tendencies to split, disavow or idealise what the child was refused to be. Thus, splits are produced by unmourned losses. Self-esteem problems generally reflect difficulties in negotiating a sense of agency while maintaining connections to others (Layton 1998: 17; 2004: 32). However, in contrast to Lacanian theories, where processes of splitting and disavowal of the other are seen as the universal conditions for subject formation, the relational and temporal perspective inherent in a object-relational understanding includes an intersubjective space that opens up the possibility for communication, mutual love, recognition, creativity and agency (Layton 1998).

The tension between self and others represents a developmental logic where the child learns to navigate between the intrapsychic worlds of object-relations and the interrelational world of real subjects (Winnicott 1971; Benjamin 1995). Thus, the relational world gradually becomes both internally object-relational and interpersonally intersubjective: we may become both ‘love objects’ and ‘like subjects’ to each other, as Benjamin (1995) coins it. This means that whenever two people interact, there are at least two self-other psyches at play. If the inner objects do not overwhelm and invade us, we may experience a non-narcissistic interaction based on mutual recognition. The more we are able to see the other as a whole and separate subject, the more we can also integrate negative feelings we may have towards the inner object. Coming to terms with the internal and external parents is a major developmental project and a lifelong internal process for most people (Chodorow 2012: 47). Winnicott points out that for the child, it is the intrapsychic aggression towards the object that makes it possible to recognise the other as a like subject, as it gives the child the possibility to experience that the other continues to exist in spite of the child’s aggression. Through this, narcissism or omnipotence is broken: there are others out there with a separate centre of existence and their own agendas. Benjamin states that in this way destruction is ‘the Other of recognition’ (1995: 48). The capacity to deal with both kinds of relationships is developmentally intertwined and therefore the pains of loss and the pleasures of attachment are equally determinant in subject formation (Layton 1998: 18-19). It never becomes a harmony, but implies continuous disruption and repair.

In the intrapsychic as well as in the interpersonal space, the sense of self and others is constructed through transference, which includes the universal psychic capabilities of the human mind like positive and negative identifications (I see myself and the other as alike in some respect—and I can like it or not like it), introjections (I see something of the other as part of myself),projections (I place something of myself in the other), affective ambivalence (I love and hate the other at the same time), disidentifications (this is not me!), splitting (dividing things into only good and only bad and projecting the aspects onto others or myself), disavowal (refusing to recognise the reality of a traumatic experience) and idealisation (aggrandising and exalting the other and thereby also enlarging myself).[1] These processes continue to create and re-create our psychic reality throughout life. Some of them exist to defend us from anxiety and pain; others, like identification and introjection, may also enrich our agency or sense of subjectivity. Furthermore, identifications are not a coherent relational system—we may identify with aspects of different persons, in negative and positive ways at the same time (Laplanche and Pontalis 1973: 207-209). They are ways of taking parts of the other into our selves.

If feelings come from and are reworked through relations, this adds a dimension of temporality to the different sociocultural locations. This is a point that has been developed especially by Lynne Layton (1998, 2004), who underscores how relatedness, agency and feelings take shape in particular cultural fields framed by class, race and gender. This makes some versions of subjectivities acceptable and others not, and generates particular patterns of conflicts and defences:

We are born into families with their own histories and ways of mediating culture, and so we immediately engage in particular patterns of relating. The ways those patterns are internalized is conditioned by the accidents of gender, race, and class and by the power differentials that structure them at any given moment ... It is also conditioned by the bodies and temperaments of individuals and those with whom they come in contact. The meanings these bodies, temperaments, and other individual identity elements take on are not outside of culture; they are culture ... Subjects idio- syncratically make meaning of, identify with, disidentify with, take up parts of, or modify these positions in accord with on-going relational experience. (Layton 1998: 27-28)

An object-relational perspective is intergenerational in itself: it concerns change and transmission between generations in the light of changing sociocultural contexts which encounter the different generations at different points in their biographies. This means that the feelings that are experienced by the subject in any given situation will be historical in two ways: in the biographical dimension, where feelings from earlier points in life will be carried with the individual into new situations and continuously reworked; and the contextual dimension, where a specific historical and political context will frame the reworking of conscious and unconscious feelings in the individual.

  • [1] See Laplanche and Pontalis (1973) for more detailed definitions.
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