Steven Spotts, PsyD
Self & Object Constancy, One of 16 Essential Ingredients in Healthy Relationships
Updated: Apr 26, 2018
Self & Object Constancy
This is a continuing series of 16 identified characteristics of mental "health" seen through the lens of our closest or most intimate relationships. The truth is, the healthier we are, the healthier our relationships will be.
"Self and object constancy" is probably one of the most important of all the mental health characteristics we are going to look at in this series but it is also one of the most difficult to explain. Some of this has to do with the term “object” which, for simplicity’s sake, is referring here to any “other” with whom we are, or have been, in relationship.
Among other things, self and object constancy has to do with the capacity to develop and hold on to an internal image of both yourself and another that is stable and continuous over time.
It is the ability to experience yourself as one and the same "self" over the course of your lifetime. Certainly, most of us recognize we exist as a "self" who continues to change and grow during our lifetime, but our sense of that “self” is that it has and will continue to exist in a relatively constant state, from our birth (or our earliest awareness) to death (and for many, even beyond the grave).
Constancy applies to our view of others as well. When I first wrote these words I was on a plane flying to Ft Worth to see my 88 year-old mother. She was the same mother I have known all my life; and yet, very different in many respects as time has transformed her. Although she looked different than the mother of my youth and her capacities were far more limited than they once were, she was easily recognized as my “mother,” the one I have always known when I greeted her that afternoon, now six years ago.
At that time, our greetings brought together a lifetime of shared memories and experiences that we held continuously and from which we both derived meaning, whether together or apart, alive or passed into eternity (as my father had some years before).
Today, I took my 94 year-old mother to establish a relationship with a new doctor since we have recently moved her to Oregon. Over the last year I have experienced in a rather profound way the loss of my mother as dementia has set in and impacted her ability to hold on to our shared histories. The other day she wondered aloud if I had married (I've been married for 40 years) and if my wife was my sister. By this afternoon, when my wife visited, she could remember only that she had been to the doctor but had completely forgotten the several hours she and I spent together. She knew someone had taken her but was not sure who it was nor could she even hazard a guess as to who it might have been.
It is in this context that I struggle each day not to argue with her (a fruitless endeavor) but have realized in caring for her that what I am arguing against is not her misapplied or misremembered memories but the sense that I am losing more and more of her with each passing day. I am resisting it when I argue with her but we no longer have an agreed upon history. The stability and constancy of our lifelong sense of each other has been riddled by her dementia. Our shared reality is draining away, drop by drop.
Our capacity for object constancy is first and most normally developed in a childhood of secure attachments (see the fourth article in this series). If our relationship with parents or caretakers is secure we can come to see that the same parent who comforts and provides for us is also one who occasionally deprives or disciplines us.
On the other hand, a neglectful, abusive, chaotic, or traumatic childhood can play havoc with our sense of constancy and continuity. In many families the only constancy is that things always change. If our parents or caretakers are too dangerous and unpredictable, we may seek ways to make them less threatening by splitting off the dangerous or bad aspects of that person or situation. This allows the abusive or frightening caregiver to be good, while often it is our "self" that becomes "bad."
It can feel safer for children to assume that they personally are bad rather than a parent acting badly toward them. It gives a greater sense of control over the danger if the badness is in them rather than in the other.
Most of us recognize differing “self states." We even speak in terms of this by saying, “Part of me wants this, and part of me wants that." Yet, most of us also recognize we don’t exist in parts. There is just one of us. We can develop these different part-selves as a way of separating out aspects of ourself that are troubling, anxiety provoking, or just inconsistent with other "parts" we prefer.
This capacity to effectively integrate the good and bad aspects of self and others is especially important because both self and others are sure to disappoint. If we are unable to see ourselves realistically, as one with both good and bad traits and behaviors, successes and failures, etc., we will either become merciless in our self appraisal or intolerably proud and arrogant in our dealings with others.
If we can’t integrate the good and bad in others we will be chronically disappointed and constantly criticize or nag people for not living up to our impossible standards; or, we will elevate them, and place them on an unreachable pedestal, only to resent them for being so distant or berate them when they inevitably fall off the perch where we placed them.
In Being and Loving, Althea Horner, describes the importance of self and object constancy this way,
“Our present ways of experiencing and defining ourselves in various relationships and circumstances are an outgrowth of our earliest experiences in the world. What we experience today takes its meaning from the total context of our lives, not just the 'here and now.' Our reactions to events in our lives are based not only on the objective facts but also on the meaning we give to what we experience."
In other words, the way we relate to people today is founded upon the expectations and disappointments of yesterday.
One can imagine how important this concept is when we think of marriage. Each partner brings to the relationship a whole set of ideas about what the relationship "should" look like based on past experiences. Thus, the kindnesses of one might be experienced as competitiveness or a "holier than thou" attitude by the other. An authentic and legitimate complement might be heard as sarcasm, insincerity, or criticism.
In addition, If we or our partner are unable to see ourselves or one another as “works in progress,” a new creation still plagued by an old nature, we can easily become discouraged, bitter, critical, and hostile toward the redemptive work of God in each of our lives.
For the Christian who integrates well, this means that one recognizes both self and other are rebels redeemed at a great price. We might know we are called to bear good fruit, but we also know we are plagued by an old nature that stubbornly continues in its susceptibility to rebellion. Keeping this in mind can help you provide a safe space in your relationship for growth toward maturity to occur.
Here is a question to consider: What would it mean for your marriage or relationship if you could recognize in your partner their good intentions even when their overt behavior might be undesirable?
How would it change things if you remembered that the person you might “hate” at one moment is the same person you once moved heaven and earth to pursue?
I hope you will join in conversation with your partner There are so many things to be said on these topics and so much to be learned from one another.
Please also check back soon as we continue with this series on 16 essential ingredients in healthy relationships. Next up: Ego Strength.