Q & A on Object Relations

Q. What is the idea of “object relations” with regard to the Enneagram types?
A. Object relations are a theory of the ego (and ego development) pioneered in the 1940’s and 50’s by British psychologists W.R.D. Fairbairn, D.W. Winnicott, Harry Guntrip, and others that has gained widespread acceptance and use in contemporary therapy. The basic idea behind object relations theory is that the ego-self only exists in relation to something else.

In the first three years of life, we begin to distinguish and separate aspects of our experience, in the process of learning to distinguish our identity from that of others; more about this phenomenon was discovered in the course of studying the interactions of infants with their mothers. In the 1970’s, psychologist Margaret Mahler and her colleagues ran extensive studies on how a baby’s sense of identity developed; they learned that initially the baby cannot distinguish herself from her mother or from anything else, for that matter. The baby’s consciousness exists in what is called an “undifferentiated state.” There is only immediate experience without a distinct sense of a separate self. Gradually, the baby recognizes that her universe consists of a self and someone else (of course, the mother, or “the nurturing figure”). The baby then begins to separate some of its many experiences and qualities, assigning some to herself and some to the other. Further, psychologists learned that this unconscious pattern remained active as the ground for all the subsequent developments of the personality.

Object relations theory therefore suggests that the ego-self is maintained by three components: (1) the “self object,” (2) is the “other object,” and (3) is the affect or feeling-state between them.


Object Relations theory has identified three fundamental “affects” that can exist between the self object and the other object. These three affects are universal emotional states that are major building blocks of the personality. These three fundamental affects are attachment, frustration, and rejection.

All human beings are constantly operating in all three of these affective states, regardless of their specific personality type. Further, they are mutually dependent, so to have one is to have them all. Nevertheless, each Enneagram type derives its strongest, most familiar sense of identity from one of these particular affects; in other words, some types are more typically “attachment-based,” some are more “frustration-based,” and some are more “rejection-based.”

Attachment represents the desire of the ego to maintain a comfortable and stable relationship with people or things that are identified with. Simply put, we want to hold onto whatever works well for us, be it a person, a job, a self-image, a feeling state, or a comfortable chair.

The Attachment-based Group includes types Three, Six, and Nine. These types have problems with deeply held attachments to people, situations, or states that are “working” for them. Threes have learned to adjust their self-image and feelings to become more acceptable to and be valued by others. In this way, they hope to hold onto whatever attention and affection is available to them. They become attached both to the positive regard of whomever in their life they turn to for validation, and to whatever means they believe are necessary to keep the other’s approval. Sixes have learned to associate certain relationships, social situations, groups, and beliefs with their security and safety. They invest themselves in these attachments and defend them, even when they may actually be harmed by them. (For example, a Six may stay in a bad marriage or a job out of a belief that it is necessary for security.) Nines became attached to an inner sense of well-being, a “comfort zone,” that they associate with autonomy and freedom. Nines may see their relationship with an idealized other or a comforting routine or a favorite food or a television show as a source of their stability and inner peace. Whatever the source, Nines do not want their “comfort zone” to be tampered with or changed.

Frustration relates to our feeling that our comfort and needs are not being sufficiently attended to. The self is experienced as “hungry”—uncomfortable, restless, dissatisfied, impatient, or needy. These feelings arise from deeply conditioned patterns from our childhood. A person may actually be getting their needs met in ways they may not recognize, but still feel frustrated due to this background patterning. In fact, even if the person’s needs are consciously met, he will often find something else to become frustrated about. This is because the person’s identity is partially based on being frustrated. Sometimes we also reverse the pattern and become the one who frustrates others as a way of defending against our own feelings of frustration.

The Frustration-based Group includes types One, Four, and Seven. None of these types ever seems to be able to find what it is looking for; they all can quickly become disenchanted with whatever previously has seemed to be the solution to their desires.

Ones are frustrated that the world is not more sensible and orderly than it actually is, and that others do not have the integrity that Ones believe they themselves have. They feel that others are constantly thwarting their efforts to improve things. Ones feel, “Nothing is done quite well enough—everything fails to measure up to my standards.” Fours are frustrated that they have not been adequately parented, and unconsciously expect valued others to protect and nurture them. When others fail to live up to their unrealistic expectations, Fours become frustrated and disappointed. Fours feel, “I never get what I need—everyone disappoints me.” Sevens are frustrated because they pin their hopes for happiness on specific experiences that ultimately fail to satisfy them, moving on to something new with equal ardor and high hopes for fulfillment, usually only to be disappointed again. They feel, “I can’t find what will satisfy me—I’ve got to keep looking and going after it.”

The Rejection-based Group includes types Two, Five, and Eight. In this pattern, the self is unconsciously seen as small, weak, and potentially victimized, and others are seen as powerful, abusive, and rejecting. All three of these types go through life expecting to be rejected and so they defend themselves against this feeling in various ways. They repress their own genuine needs and vulnerabilities, attempting to offer some service, ability, or resource as a hedge against further rejection. Twos feel that they must be so good that others will not reject them. They cover over a feeling of underlying worthlessness and the fear that they are not really wanted by trying to please others so much that others will not dare reject or abandon them. Unlike Twos who feel that they are good, Eights feel that they are innately bad, and will likely be rejected unless they are so powerful and in control of life’s necessities that others will dare not reject them. Further, Eights adopt a “tough” stance toward life—in effect, bracing themselves for rejection and trying to not care in the event that they actually are rejected. Fives feel negligible, on the sidelines of life, and that they therefore must know something or have some special skill so useful to others that they will not be rejected. Like Eights, Fives also reduce the pain of rejection by cutting off from their feelings about it. All three of these types offer some service or skill as a way of staving off rejection. Twos offer their caring and affection; Eights offer their strength; and Fives offer their knowledge and expertise.

All of these relationships can be plotted on the Enneagram, revealing new triadic groupings and relationships—as well as practical implications for Inner Work—all of which are beyond the scope of this brief article.