What Is Object Constancy And How Does It Affect People?
Updated November 08, 2019
Reviewer Laura Angers
When you were a child, did your mother pick you up and kiss your tears? Or did she shout at you to stop crying? Did your father encourage you to follow your dreams, or did he laugh at your ambitions? The answers to these questions play a role in the development of your object constancy, a term that describes your ability to function in a relationship where there is distance, conflict, or contention.
What Exactly Is Object Constancy?
Object constancy is the ability to believe that a relationship is stable and intact, despite the presence of setbacks, conflict, or disagreements. People who lack object constancy might experience extreme anxiety in relationships of all types-not just romantic ones-and may live in constant fear of abandonment. When people feel as though they can trust the constant nature of a relationship, they are able to enjoy that and other relationships. If you were able to trust your parents in childhood, for instance, your relationships into adulthood are more likely to flourish. Conversely, if you were unable to trust your parents and their love for and acceptance of you in childhood, you may struggle to trust and open up in adulthood.
Object constancy can be the difference between someone being able to enjoy ambiguity in a relationship, and someone constantly needing to question the relationship-what it is and where it's going. Although wanting a defined relationship is not unhealthy, living in constant fear of its lack of definition is. Lacking object constancy can lead to this fear.
Object Constancy and Relationships
Object constancy is related to the idea of object permanence. Both refer to the stability of an idea held in a person's mind, but object constancy describes our attitudes toward interpersonal relationships, while object permanence refers to our understanding of concrete objects. Object constancy can be evaluated and improved by a mental health professional, while object permanence would require the testing and intervention of a pediatrician or neurologist.
In relationships, object constancy is often a predictor of satisfaction and feelings of safety and security. It's a relationship model of object permanence, in that it allows you to still feel seen, safe, and loved, even when a loved one is not by your side, or constantly reassuring you that they do, in fact, love you. Object constancy may start with parents, but can also manifest through other caregivers, friends, and partners, all of whom can teach you that love is continual, even when you are not in another's presence-or conversely, that love is conditional and can go away at any moment.
If you think you're experiencing a break in your object constancy, you aren't alone. Many people did not receive the proper attachment cues needed in childhood to develop healthy object constancy, and this can lead to relationship difficulties down the road. You might find yourself struggling in romantic relationships, but you may also struggle with making and keeping friends, and maintaining strong, ongoing connections with family members, too.
Object Constancy in Psychology
A shaky or absent development of object constancy can impair basic functioning skills, and can even lead to a series of disorders as you grow older. Some of the potential issues present in dysfunctional object constancy include:
1) Poor Attachment Patterns. Children should attach to their parents, their family members, their friends, and as people grow older, their romantic partners. The first model of attachment available to children is the relationship between them and their parents. If parents do not provide a stable, consistent, and trustworthy model of attachment-most commonly through demonstrating unconditional love and trustworthy presence-children do not develop the ability to trust others to stay present in their lives in the face of distance, conflict, or confusion.
2) Borderline Personality Disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder is a serious personality disorder that is most commonly characterized by dysfunctional relationships, broken attachment patterns, and intense reactions to emotions, which leads to difficulty regulating emotions. Borderline Personality Disorder may be under diagnosed, and may have powerful ties to a lack of object constancy.
3) Low Self-Esteem. Because many people without object constancy struggle to make or maintain relationships, low self-esteem may arise. Rather than recognizing issues with relationships as a symptom of childhood hurts, many people will internalize the loss of friends-or difficulty keeping them-as an indication that something is wrong or unlovable about them.
4) A Disconnect from Reality. Many people with damaged object constancy struggle to ground themselves in the present moment. This may come in the form of fantastical thinking, but may also come in the form of "if only…then" thinking, or other nostalgic, longing thoughts. These thoughts can cause great difficulties in day-to-day life, and is an indication of an unhealthy emotional state.
Object Constancy and Childhood
Although much attention has been given to the potential for childhood emotional injuries to affect adulthood, object constancy has not been given as much credence as some other more popular attachment theories. The basis of object constancy, though, lends itself to the development of strong, healthy attachments of all types, and a lack could indicate that a child will have difficulty making and keeping friends-a difficulty that can easily manifest in adulthood.
Although lacking object constancy might not reveal itself fully until adulthood or adolescence, children can exhibit the symptoms. This is most often seen when children are easily emotionally upset, have difficulty making friends, and display an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality regarding close relationships. These children might never engage in the notion of a "best friend," and might simply flit from person to person, without forming serious or long-term attachments.
A lack of object constancy is problematic in childhood, but thankfully, it can be treated.
The best source of help for a lack of object constancy is through a qualified mental health professional. Seeing your primary care physician with your concerns can be useful, as your PCP may be able to refer you to other services, but you can also call local therapists to determine if they have experience working with the disorder or something similar. Therapy usually involves creating a close, friendly bond with the therapist in order to reshape your ideas regarding abandonment and commitment.
Practicing healthy attachment and communication with a parent, sibling, friend, or partner can also be useful, though it can initially put some strain on a relationship. Because many people who struggle with object constancy feel as though the relationship is over the moment a conflict has arisen, relationships may struggle at first, but continuing to push through feelings of abandonment and fear can strengthen these relationships while building up your sense of trust.
How BetterHelp Can Help
Most people struggling with object constancy do eventually seek out therapy, as it is the most effective way to repattern your brain and create healthier, stronger habits. Therapists can peel back the layers of your past-your relationships, experiences, and even your childhood pain-in order to map out the path to greater health and happiness.
BetterHelp offers online therapy, which allows greater freedom in scheduling and pay. Because therapists do not incur the expense of a dedicated meeting space, many online therapy sessions are the same price (if not less than) a standard co-pay. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors.
"Dr. Baggs has been very helpful in helping me deal with anxiety, and I've been overall satisfied with the experience. She's helped me work through and understand trauma from my childhood, as well as help me realize I'm on the right path to getting help and improving my life. Overall a very good experience."
"I have been working with Dr. Cheng for a few weeks now. She is extremely caring and patient. Very quickly, she was able to identify my struggles and I feel very well cared for. I struggled a lot with one on one sessions, but doing online has been less tiring for me. She is helping me with my anxiety and with past childhood traumas. I find that the exercises she provided me are of great use. I definitely recommend her."
Object Constancy and Growth
Object constancy is an important part of any relationship, whether it's with your parents, your friends, or a romantic partner. With the right tools, you can re-learn healthier patterns of behavior, and enjoy relationships filled with trust, comfort, and joy. Take the first step today.