Object constancy: How emotions relate to object permanence
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Object Constancy: How Our Emotions Relate To Object Permanence

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Object constancy is an idea related to object permanence. Object permanence means knowing that an object still exists, even if it is hidden. It requires the ability to form a mental representation (i.e. a schema) of the object.

Most healthy human beings develop object permanence by the time they are two years of age. The development of object permanence signals the end of the sensorimotor stage and the beginning of representational thought. 

Object permanence was first studied by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. He believed that the development of object permanence was essential in infants as without this concept, objects would not have a permanent and separate existence. 

In Piaget’s experiments, he found that object permanence developed at around 9 months of age. However, recent experiments have shown that object permanence can develop as early as 4 months after birth.

The entire concept of peek-a-boo is based on this. When you play peek-a-boo with a toddler and hide your face behind a screen or the blanket, the toddler thinks that you have disappeared or ceased to exist because you are no longer visible to him/her.

As we grow older, we realize that things do not cease to exist if we can no longer see them.

We know that our school is still there even if we cannot see it from our bedrooms.

We know that the huge mango tree at the bend of the road is still there even if we cannot see it from our homes.

We are aware that even if we cannot see or feel our parents at this moment because they are elsewhere, we would still know that they exist. We would not feel the need to call them constantly, every minute,  just to make sure that they are physically there.

The understanding that even if we are unable to perceive the physical presence of our loved ones, or the objects that surround us in our daily lives, does not mean that they have ceased to exist in the real world, develops as we grow older.

But when it comes to emotions, we never learn to apply the same concept of object permanence or object constancy. 

The way we perceive love and affection remains the same as that of an infant or a two year old toddler, who needs constant reassurance that they are loved and wanted. We seek affection in the same way that an infant does.

Why do we fail to let go and develop object constancy when it comes to emotions, more so when it comes to love and affection?

Remember the toddler I spoke of earlier, who thinks that any object that goes out of sight has ceased to exist? Well, we as adults are like that toddler when it comes to love and affection and relationships, in general.

Psychoanalyst and clinical researcher Margaret Mahler defines object constancy as a child’s, and later, a person’s:

  • Capacity to recognize and tolerate loving and hostile feelings toward the same object;
  • Capacity to keep feelings centered on a specific object; and
  • Capacity to value an object for attributes other than its function of satisfying needs.

If a child develops a strong sense of connectedness with their primary caregivers (usually the parents), they will not develop issues with object constancy as adults.

As adults, such children know that circumstances that cause separation and conflict will most likely not cause their partner to abandon or reject them.

They are often able to maintain monogamous relationships and also have mutually satisfying relationships with other members of the society such as friends and colleagues.

Most adults have a weak sense of object constancy. This weakness is what forms our sense of insecurity in relationships and provokes jealousy and clinginess. 

This is what drives the stories that we often tell ourselves when we have a fight with our loved ones.

It is the cause of the anxiety that we feel when we haven’t heard from our loved ones and think that they are upset with us.

Any of these scenarios provokes an emotional reaction which involves indifference, anger, rationalization, grief and finally relief.

What we fail to realize is that the entire situation is false and fabricated.

We put ourselves through this misery for something that does not really exist.

Relationships usually run in cycles and usually things are never constant. This is actually a good thing. Imagine if your relationships were the same every single day. Life would be utterly monotonous and boring.

People are sometimes affectionate and emotionally intimate and sometimes cold and distant. Now, this does not mean that it’s a bad thing. It just is. Something that is totally not under your control.

When two people in a relationship give each other space, it actually benefits the relationship rather than the contrary.

Poor object constancy leads to a person being clingy, overbearing, jealous and suffocating.

The good news is that object constancy can be developed through deflecting irrational ideas and fears that come to your mind about your relationships. Rather than adding fuel to your imagination and driving yourself crazy, use that energy to gather evidence that will put your irrational fears to rest. Eventually, when practised over a period of time, you will get over your irrational fears and break the cycle.

Now, this might be  fairly easy to do in normal individuals with some amount mindfulness and persistence on their part.

However, in individuals with bipolar disorder, it is extremely difficult to develop object constancy. People with this disorder often forget that someone exists as they leave. 

It usually has a great effect on their relationships and friendships. They usually have trouble creating images of their loved ones or friends in their minds. They usually find themselves forgetting interactions that they might have had with someone a few hours ago. This creates a lot of anxiety in them. This is because they struggle to recall the time spent with someone they love and care about.

Carrying pictures of their loved ones or writing down events help them to remember. If they don’t make this extra effort, they can become very distant with the people they love, neglect friendships and experience separation anxiety.

It’s important for people to be aware of the struggles faced by these individuals and understand and accept them.

As for the rest of us, just remember that if no one is bleeding, or dying or there is no catastrophe…..

Take a deep breath and have faith that everything is going to be fine.

Did you find my article “Object constancy: How emotions relate to object permanence” helpful or know somebody who would? I’d really love it if you could share it.

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