How Object Constancy And Emotional Permanence Can Affect Your Relationships

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You may wonder why some people seem to be inconsistent in their attitudes and actions. For example, you may have trouble understanding how these individuals can shift rapidly between pleasant behavior and anger, anxiety, or coldness. Or, you might recognize this tendency in yourself. One psychological theory suggests that this behavior could be related to the qualities of object constancy and emotional permanence. People who are lacking in these traits may have a harder time relating appropriately to those around them.

Object constancy refers to the ability to separate your view of a person’s character from how you feel about them at the moment. Emotional permanence is a specific type of object constancy that enables you to trust that other people care for you even when they’re not actively showing you affection. Difficulties with either one might cause challenges in your relationships with the people you care about. 

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Object constancy and object relations theory

The term “object constancy” might sound similar to “object permanence”, which is no coincidence. Both concepts emerged from psychological theories about how children develop their understanding of the world around them. 

Object permanence

A child is said to have object permanence when they become aware that things around them still exist when they’re out of sight. In other words, if you hide around the corner and your baby acts as if you’ve vanished from the face of the Earth, they don’t yet have object permanence. At a certain point in their development, though, they come to understand that you still exist when they can’t see you. That’s when they start poking their head around the corner to find you.

Object constancy

According to a school of thought in psychology known as object relations theory, something similar happens with our ideas about other people. As very young children, we may not think of the people in our lives as individuals who stay constant over time. Instead, we can only perceive them in terms of the sensations and emotions they cause.

For example, an infant may have no idea that their happiness at being fed and their discomfort at having their diaper changed are caused by the same person. Over time, though, repeated connections between sensations allow them to construct a representation of a person in their memories. This gradually leads to the realization that their mother is the same person whether they feel happy, sad, angry, or fearful toward her. This is what psychologists mean by object constancy.

Emotional permanence

Emotional permanence could be thought of as the ability to trust that other people have object constancy. It’s what allows you to remain secure that the people in your life value you and care about you. Difficulties with this capacity could lead to a chronic fear of abandonment and a constant need for reassurance. These behaviors can sometimes be the very things that end up driving loving partners away.

How object constancy can be impaired

It might sound strange to hear that adult relationships could be disrupted by difficulty with such a basic cognitive task. However, according to object relations theory, object constancy is not something that a person either has or doesn’t have. It’s a way of looking at the world that develops and strengthens over time. Some psychologists think that this course of development can sometimes be disrupted or distorted. 

Certain individuals may intellectually grasp the idea of object constancy, but they might not feel it on a deeper level. When someone frustrates or disappoints them, they might have a hard time connecting those emotions with their previous positive feelings toward that person. You could think of them as having an emotional blank slate — their attitude towards you might be based only on what’s happening between you right now with little regard for your shared history. 

Many social relations theorists believe this occurs due to experiences in early childhood. If a parent is inconsistent in providing food, affection, and comfort, the infant might not experience them as a stable presence in their lives. 

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These early relationships appear to be crucial for understanding what it means to be a person at all. Thus, inconsistency from a parent could interfere with a child’s sense of how people relate to each other. They might have trouble viewing a person’s identity as something that remains constant over time.

Object constancy, emotional permanence, and mental health

The cognitive and emotional difficulties above may have substantial impacts on a person’s mental health. Any of the following psychological challenges might involve a lack of stable object constancy or emotional permanence:

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Insecure attachment

Some psychological research suggests that people tend to form distinctive attachment styles in early childhood that shape their future relationships. A secure attachment style means you’re able to form stable bonds with others. On the other hand, an insecure attachment can cause various kinds of relational difficulties, often related to object constancy issues.

People with an insecure-avoidant attachment may be hesitant to form lasting connections, for instance. They can seem “hot and cold” or have a pattern of pulling away or sabotaging relationships when things begin to get serious. This could be linked to a diminished object constancy toward others that makes it hard to view them as long-term partners.

Insecure-anxious attachment, on the other hand, might relate to an impaired sense of emotional permanence. This attachment style often leads people to come across as “needy” or “clingy” because they have an excessive need for reassurance in order to feel loved.

Insecure attachment may contribute to the pathology of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). However, BPD also includes other serious irregularities of thought, emotion, and behavior and is considered a diagnosable mental illness. 

BPD may involve intense fears of rejection and betrayal coupled with an extreme desire for closeness to others. An individual with this condition might deliberately “test” relationships or push people away while simultaneously resenting them when they maintain boundaries. These difficulties in maintaining healthy relationships might have roots in emotional permanence challenges.  A study of adolescents with BPD found that they’re more likely to have signs of low object constancy than others.

Narcissistic personality disorder

People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) could also have a disordered sense of object constancy. These individuals often have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. They may also have trouble empathizing with others or considering others’ desires and feelings meaningful. 

Some mental health professionals regard a lack of object constancy as a central feature of a narcissistic personality. This might explain why a person with NPD can appear to love you one minute and hate you the next. As soon as you’re no longer giving them what they want, their impaired object constancy could keep them from thinking of you as the same person they formerly adored.

Can you learn object constancy and emotional permanence?

You may wonder what you can do if you think your relationship problems might be rooted in impaired emotional permanence or object constancy. Psychological research has identified several techniques for improving your ability to relate to others.

Mindfulness practice

One study found that low levels of attachment security are correlated with low mindfulness, a trait describing a person’s ability to be aware of their own thoughts and emotions. Learning to be more mindful may help you recognize the distorted mental habits that limit your object constancy, enabling you to let them go. 

One of the best-studied methods for improving mindfulness is mindfulness meditation. You may find that even 10-20 minutes of this meditation each day can help you better understand yourself and other people. To practice mindfulness meditation, try to relax and pay attention to your thoughts, sensations, and emotions without judging them or trying to control them.

Self-affirmation

Having a healthy sense of yourself may make you feel more secure in your relationships. It might also help you to perceive other people as multifaceted individuals with both good and bad qualities. 

Perhaps one way to build a positive self-image is through self-affirmation, in which you write down and reflect on the things in your life that give it meaning. This technique could help you anchor yourself in your personal values, rather than in the opinions of others or your momentary triumphs and failures.

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Improve your object constancy and build secure relationships

Therapy

Psychotherapy has shown promise for improving attachment security and decreasing attachment anxiety. This suggests that it may be helping clients resolve their difficulties with object constancy and emotional permanence. Working with a therapist could help you strengthen your ability to relate to other people in healthy ways.

If you’re worried that attachment challenges might make it hard to trust a therapist with your thoughts and feelings, you might want to consider online therapy. Many clients experience a greater sense of control when connecting with a mental health professional remotely rather than in person. This may make them more comfortable engaging with the therapeutic process.

Research on the benefits of online therapy suggests that it’s a workable treatment that can significantly reduce symptoms of mental health difficulties. A systematic review of the scientific evidence found that there was “no difference in effectiveness” between internet therapy and sessions conducted in person. 

Takeaway

Object constancy and emotional permanence are terms describing a person’s ability to view others as consistent personalities over time. Childhood experiences that compromise this capacity might make it difficult to count on people as steady presences in your life. This can result in a variety of relationship challenges. With support and guidance from a mental health professional, you can begin to heal and grow through mindfulness, self-affirmation, and therapy. To connect with a licensed online counselor, reach out to BetterHelp.
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