What is object constancy?
“Object constancy” is the psychological term for the capacity to maintain your sense of a positive connection to someone you generally like when you are angry, disappointed, hurt, frustrated, to physically distant from the person. It also involves the ability to call up the person’s face in memory.
What can happen when someone you love lacks object constancy?
Without object constancy, love can turn to hatred during an argument and the once beloved other person is now seen as the enemy. This can quickly escalate into abusive behavior.
If we have object constancy, we are much less likely to be mean to the people that we claim to love and our relationships will be more enduring and stable.
What are some subtle or surprising signs that may indicate a person lacks object constancy?
When theorists talk about object constancy, we often focus on how its lack affects two people who are together, such as what happens in the middle of a fight that can lead to abuse, or when a parent overreacts to his or her two year old child’s tantrum in a grocery store and smacks him.
But…a lack of object constancy can also hurt an intimate relationship when the two people are apart, such as when one member of a couple goes on a business trip or a friend moves away.
Here are some subtle and surprising signs that may signal a lack of object constancy:
Example 1—When your lover is on a trip, he/she often forgets to call you, even though he/she always promises to call. When you say you feel hurt, he/she seems genuinely remorseful. He/She says, “I love you and I always intend to call you. But, when I am away from you, it is like I am in a different world—and you don’t exist in that world. I know that is no excuse, but I can’t really explain it, even to myself.”
Example 2—You become angry at your spouse when he/she goes away on a business trip because you feel abandoned and disconnected from him/her—even though you know he/she is faithful to you.
When he/she returns, you find it hard to pick up where you left off. It is as if there was a cord connecting you and once he leaves, it is severed. Now you have to laboriously rebuild the connection between you. You blame him because he/she is the one who left, even though you know on some level that this is not fair.
Example 3—You were best friends when you worked at the same company. Now you have switched to another company. You realize one day that you have not called that friend to say “Hi” or make plans all year.
Example 4—Your mother took the door off your room because she said she felt too alone when you closed it for privacy.
Example 5—Your father tells you that you are the best thing he has ever done and that he will always love you. But… he forgot to call and wish you a happy birthday. And this is not the first time.
The “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” Effect
One of the lesser known side effects of a lack of object constancy is the “out of sight, out of mind” effect. When people lack object constancy, their ability to stay emotionally connected to someone who is not currently physically present, is very compromised. In essence, it is as if the other person temporarily ceases to exist for them on an emotional level.
Example 1 & 5—Forgetting to Call
In the first example, where the lover forgets to make the promised call, he/her lack of object constancy left him/her feeling disconnected from his/her partner. Emotionally, it was as if all the good feelings that they shared up to now temporarily ceased to exist.
In the fifth example, the father means what he says when he says it, but because of his lack of object constancy, his daughter does not emotionally exist for him when she is not physically present.
In people with object constancy, this type of forgetful behavior is much less likely because they still feel a strong emotional connection to the person they left behind. It is harder for a person who has object constancy to actually forget to call home or forget that it is his daughter’s birthday.
And, yes, of course there are many other reasons why someone might not call home when on a trip— they got busy and forgot, they consciously decided not to call, etc. And, the father could be preoccupied and simply have lost track of the date. I am simply adding a lack of object constancy to that list of possible reasons because this too is a possible explanation that almost nobody would think of.
Examples 2 & 4—Feeling Abandoned
In the second example, the person is angry because his/her mate’s absence triggers a painful sense of loss. This person does not have object constancy, so he/she no longer feels emotionally connected to the absent husband.
This in turn triggers old abandonment issues. Then the spouse is unfairly blamed for creating the situation that led to such unpleasant emotions.
In the fourth example, the mother lacks object constancy. When she cannot see her daughter, it is as if she no longer exists. This triggers the mother’s old and unworked through abandonment issues.
What makes this interesting is that it almost never occurs to people with abandonment issues that some of their pain is due to their past history, not their current mate or their child. It feels as if it is someone else’s fault because it is the other person’s behavior that triggers the pain.
Example 3—Dropping a Friendship
Many people find it hard to stay close, once they are not thrown together every day. But, something else is going on when someone lacks object constancy. I was first alerted to this when a very thoughtful and highly empathic person said to me (gender universal):
Something I am doing, or not doing, really puzzles me. My best friend at work left A to take a job in B. I expected to really miss him/her. I thought I would want to fly out to visit him/her as soon as I had the time. But, I actually forgot about him/her. He/She no longer feels real to me. I can’t even picture his/her face. This is weird.
Once we started exploring the situation, it became obvious that this was part of a larger pattern in which this person repeatedly lost their emotional connection to people when they were no longer physically present in their life.
When two people who care about each other cannot maintain their sense of emotional closeness when they are physically distant, this may be due to a lack of object constancy—and, in particular, the “out of sight, out of mind” effect.