The Family as the Unit of Study and Treatment: Workshop, 1959: 3. Image, Object and Narcissistic Relationships


Informed by Brodey’s work with Murray Bowen, this brief article outlines what it means to think about the family as a system.

IN WORKING with family units one sees modes of relationship which do not easily fit into the presently documented categories of relationship. One begins then to design categories which will be more sharply relevant to the clinical operations observed. Pursuing this clinical task one is struck with the broader application of the perspective gained. Let us begin by re-expanding a highly condensed summary developed in a previous report, “Some Family Operations and Schizophrenia” (1). There the following definition of the operations observed was made: 

Using the concept of externalization, the family operation observed can be defined thus: A network of narcissistic relationships, in which egodystonic aspects of self are externalized by each family member and regrouped into allegorical roles, each epitomizing a part of the major conflict which was acted out in the original marriage. These allegorical roles are played by family members, or by substitutes-others who have been induced into becoming overinvolved with the family conflict [2]. The constellation of roles allows the internal conflict of each member to be acted out within the family, rather than within the self, and each family member attempts to deal with his own conflicts by changing the other. 

It is the purpose of this paper to present as clearly as possible the theoretical considerations that go into the above statement in their wider application. First let us review the concept externalization. Briefly stated, externalization is considered “a mechanism of defense defined as projection plus the selective use of reality for verification of the projection” (1). 

Externalization as a major mechanism of defense takes on significance as one considers the second component–the selective use of reality for the verification of the projection. This selective use of reality was extreme in all the families observed, as well as in the five families reported. Each family member appears to cathect with interest and meaningfulness only a limited aspect of his environmental surroundings–that which validates expectation; the remainder of the reality available for perception is omitted. Thus, within the family relationship each family member lives within a personal reality which has become constricted. The meaningful reality for use within the family relationships has become a series of stylized picture post cards; each snap shot is accurate but lacks the nuances of color, depth, and detail that give a sense of developing continuity–of unfolding yet to take place. The ego-reality testing function is only partially maintained: a logical system of viewing reality is built but, as stated, major elements of information are omitted from the testing process. 

But no one can perceive all elements of reality at once. As Oppenheimer (3) states, one cannot be in all of the rooms of a house at once. And for each person, his perception of reality is indeed a small fragment of the total, and so it is for each succeeding generation. Each of us can look back to the proven assertions of the past and realize that their incorrectness often stemmed from what was not considered. How wonderful it is to be aware that there will always be the process of discovery to enhance the meanings and the attention that we give to the volley of stimuli which form the base material from which we build our thought images[1] of what lies within and beyond the boundaries of our own self-image. The capacity to discover, to give meaning to and to value the unexpected is for each human important to survival; observation of the families studied has suggested that the capacity to discover the unexpected, particularly as it signifies the beginnings of change, is reduced. It is this axis of variability-variations in the capacity to discover the unexpected-that will be highlighted in contrasting the object and image relationships. 

In the object relationship one’s inner image of the person to whom one is related is maintained over time as a plastic replica of the other person as he exists within one’s total experience. In the usual close relationship, one’s inner image of the other person, even when he or she is at a distance, allows major prediction of the other’s behavior. But as in a marriage, for example, there are always those moments when the other’s performance is simply not related to what one has anticipated. To the extent that this unexpected behavior is discovered, given meaning and valued, a new aspect of the other’s personality has emerged to be incorporated into the inner representation. This feedback between inner image and outer substantial reality allows the inner image of our loved one to grow and unfold. 

What one expects has always much to do with what one is aware of, and how this is structured for predictive use. It is in terms of the means of maintaining accurate prediction that the image relationship is considered at the opposite extreme to the object relationship. In the image relationship, the inner image of the other person takes precedence: the emphasis is on changing reality to fit with expectation rather than expectation to fit reality. Accurate prediction is arduously maintained. The mother’s image relationship to her child works at polarizing the child toward conforming to her mother’s fantasy. The siblings of families studied have described entering into relationship with parents as entering into a powerful magnetic field, struggling to maintain identity, losing it to fulfill parents’ expectations, relating then from within a restricted role now formalized into the family structure. To have relationship the sibling and mother must fit each other’s stereotyped image expectation. Discovery except as it verifies the expected is reduced. 

But each of us seeks to integrate the world around him with his expectation; such integration is necessary for maintaining continuity. The category image relationship is reserved for those relationships at the end of the spectrum where the reality testing and prediction system specifically and profoundly operate to reduce the possibility of discovering aspects of the other’s existence not fitting with the established expectation. 

Let us focus for the moment on that which we do not anticipate in any way. This may be called “the unexpected.” The object relationship uses the unexpected as a device for correcting the internal gestalt. The image relationship system uses the unexpected as a device for signaling the necessity to correct the outside world, or if this is not possible, to restrict what is perceived. 

Now we return to the narcissistic relationship. This term has been used in the paper “Some Family Operations and Schizophrenia’’ (1) to symbolize a way of relating defined briefly as: “a relationship with a projected or distanced part of self as mirrored in the behavior of another.” Earlier in the paper at the point where the term is more fully defined, it is stated: 

As conceptualized, the narcissistic relationship includes two ingredients: one person relating to the other as a projected part of self, the fragment of self projected being unintegrated with either a perception of self or of the external object, and, second, the other person’s becoming, within the specific relationship, symmetrical with the first person’s expectations, validating them. 

At this point I would consider that the briefer definition does not do justice to the concept of the narcissistic relationship. It is rather a part of the definition of the image relationship.[2] 

The image and object relationships, as discussed, have been placed at the two ends of a linear continuum. The narcissistic relationship as defined does not fit along the same continuum. The narcissistic relationship is rather descriptive of two people each making an image relationship to the other and. each acting within this relationship so as to validate the image-derived expectation of the other. Now we are moving toward a closed system. Both participants of the narcissistic relationship work at reducing the possibility of intrusions of the unexpected, using the devices of restriction and omission. 

For the outsider looking into the narcissistic (family) relationship, the very neatness, consistency and pseudo logicalness can appear bizarre, but to the family it is a way of life (1). To the outsider the family appears captured within the constricting boundary of its reality. As one listens in therapy hours, one waits for those statements or actions which would reduce the predictable stereotypy which one observes. It is the psychotic member who seems to have found escape from the family prison of “realism.” But his astonishingly perceptive comments are dismissed by the family as entirely crazy. The psychotic family member, met with the omission of any meaningfulness of his comment, may seek to establish more profoundly its now bizarre unexpectedness or in remission he may return to find identity in the restricted family role expected for him. Leaving psychosis may not mean health but only a return to the strait jacket of conforming with expectation. One patient while psychotic seemed alive, vibrant, and was most discerning in her relationship with the mother; but she was psychotic and her behavior unpredictable to the extreme. As she moved from this position back to what would be called by the mother “reasonableness,” she returned to being a puppet dancing with every movement of her mother’s hand with lifeless accuracy.[3] The road toward health transcends the dichotomy: bizarre and unexpected vs. complete conformity with others’ expectations. 

One more aspect of the narcissistic relationship seems significant to this presentation: In the narcissistic system of (family) relationships the unexpected is so reduced that each family member can predict how the other will behave within the family constellation. This being so, each member takes on a responsibility that most of us happily to large measure escape. Ordinarily, one can act for oneself-and leave to the other person the responsibility for taking his own position. But as the unexpected is removed and the system closed, each move would bring a known balancing and expected move from the other; then one possesses a power of anticipation, which gives one’s acts new meaning as controlling the total balance. Operationally one becomes responsible for balancing others. Truly such a family becomes a single organism in more than a surface conceptual sense. As the family members observed so frequently expressed it, “Each family member does live for the other,” and efforts to change self include the other family members. It is considered that the reduced use of the unexpected is an operational aspect of what has previously been called “phantasies of omnipotence.” [4]

The above has been an effort to develop briefly some concepts that have been found useful in building a conception of family operation. In addition to further comments on externalization and the narcissistic relationship, an effort has been made to separate out the image relationship from the narcissistic relationship. The term narcissistic relationship is reserved for naming the between-two-persons reciprocal relationship as described above. The image relationship being a relationship-toward-a-person concept can be now appropriately defined in contradistinction to the object relationship. 

Thus, in the object relationship the inner image of the object is being constantly redesigned to fit with the experience of the existing other; unexpected experiences are utilized for their corrective potential, broadening the relationship. In the image relationship, the inner image of the object is being used to constantly redesign the experience with the existing other, so that it will fit with inner determined prediction. The image relationship works toward omitting the unexpected, constricting and stereotyping the relationship.


1. Brodey, W. M. “Some Family Operations and Schizophrenia: A Study of Five Hospitalized Families Each with a Schizophrenic Member.” AMA Arch. Gen. Psychiatry, 1:379-402, 1959.

2. Brodey, W. M. and Hayden, M. “Intrateam Reactions: Their Relation to the Conflicts of the Family in Treatment.” Am. J. Orthopsychiatry, 27: 349-355, 1957.

3. Oppenheimer, R. Science and the Common Understanding. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.

4. Adorno, T. W. et al. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper, 1950.

5. Allport, G. W. The Nature of Prejudice. Boston: Beacon Press, 1954.


Our images of the world inside and around us are not just thought. Each knows the sense of tension in his own arm as his favorite tennis player serves at a crucial point of the game.

It refers to developmental aspects of the image relationship: The image relationship is considered to have its roots in the process of relating to self as distanced to another. This stage budding out of primary narcissism precedes and potentiates the separation of the “me” from the “not-me.’’ The later potential for cathexis of a “not-me other,” which defines the object relationship, is an expression of the completeness of this separation process

In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the theme “Is the capturer captured by his captive?” is pertinently symbolized in the roles of Pozzo and Lucky

The problem of omnipotence and closed systems of philosophy–where all is neatly explainable and the possibility of divergence labeled ignorance–has received much attention in the social sphere. See Adorno and others (4) and Allport (5).