How Do You Develop Whole Object Relations as an Adult?

Learn to see yourself and other people in an integrated and more realistic way.

Posted Feb 11, 2019

If you missed out on developing whole object relations as a child, do not worry. You can develop it as an adult. You were born with the capacity to develop whole object relations and it is never to late to do so.

Let’s start with a definition of what I mean by “whole object relations.”

What is meant by whole object relations?

This is the ability to form an integrated, realistic, and relatively stable image of oneself and other people that simultaneously includes both liked and disliked aspects and also strengths and flaws.

If you do not have whole object relations, you can only see yourself and other people in a split and unnuanced way as either all good or all bad. It is as if you had to sort all your experiences with yourself and other people into only two buckets: the all-good bucket or the all-bad bucket.

A lack of whole object relations and object constancy is characteristic of people who are diagnosed with personality disorders. For example, from an object relations theoretical point of view, the main difference between simply having narcissistic traits versus qualifying for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder is based on the narcissistic person's lack of whole object relations and object constancy.

What makes the lack of whole object relations such a problem?

  • It distorts reality.

This way of looking at people distorts reality. No person is all good or all bad. We are all a mixture of traits and behave differently with different people at different times.

If you need to see people as all good or all bad, every time someone does something that does not fit into your current bucket, you will either have to deny reality and ignore what is happening or you have to switch them into the other bucket.

This means you could be seeing someone as all-good one moment and tell the person, “I love you” with great sincerity and then two minutes later, when they do something you do not like, now see the person as all-bad and with equal sincerity say, “I hate you.”

  • There are two separate irreconcilable histories.

When you are in the split state of seeing someone as all good, the entire history of imperfect bad moments in your past together becomes part of the unseen background. You respond to the person as if the person had always been all good. The same is true when you are seeing them as all bad. Now you ignore any evidence that the person has been good to you in the past and you have had many enjoyable moments together.

  • It is accompanied by a lack of object constancy.

People who lack whole object relations also lack object constancy. Object constancy is the ability to maintain your positive feelings for someone while you are feeling hurt, angry, frustrated, or disappointed with their behavior. Without object constancy, every fight becomes a potential breakup.

So….how do I fix this?

Here are some methods that I use that can help you gradually develop whole object relations and object constancy by retraining your brain to see the good and the bad, the liked and the disliked at the same time. You can do the first three on your own. You will need a psychotherapist for the fourth method.

My experience had been that these methods can be adapted to work for almost anyone who seriously wants to achieve whole object relations and is willing to put in the work.

Method 1—The Emotional Scrapbook

This method is particularly good for visually-oriented people. It can be done in different ways with equal success, so please feel free to adapt it so it fits you better.

Step 1—Collect positive images

Choose a person who is emotionally important to you whom you would like to develop a more stable and realistic view of. While you are feeling good about this person, make a mental photo album filled with memories of times he or she did things for you that you appreciate, or was loving, and acted in ways that made you feel good.

Step 2—Run through the images

Go through these images repeatedly in your mind until you can bring them to mind easily.

Step 3—Practice

The next time you realize you are slipping into an all-bad image of the person, tell yourself to “Stop!” Then run through your set of positive images. Try and feel the good feelings associated with each image.

Do not worry if in the beginning you find yourself viewing the person as all-bad before you can catch yourself and begin to picture all the good things about this person. That is normal. Almost everyone has to work backwards. Eventually, you will get ahead of the curve.

Example: Lisa and her husband Don fought a lot in the first few years of their marriage. One moment they would be acting loving with each other, then Lisa would find something Don did annoying. She would tell him about it, and if he did not immediately apologize to her satisfaction, she would soon find herself thinking: What am I doing married to this idiot? What did I ever see in him? Maybe I should just leave?

When Lisa started working on gaining whole object relations, we used those thoughts as her cues that she was now seeing Don in an unrealistically all-bad way. Now when she finds herself thinking: I should leave him. What did I ever see in him? This situation is hopeless, she realizes that is her signal to start reviewing her mental pictures of Don’s good qualities and all the wonderful times the two of them have had together.

As a result, Lisa appreciates Don more. They are fighting much less and resolving the fights sooner with less damage to their relationship.

Method 2—A Physical Scrapbook

Not everyone has a good visual memory. You can make a real scrapbook in which you put photos and mementos of your loved one that have a positive emotional meaning for you. Then, you go through the same steps as in Method 1. But..instead of visualizing the good moments, you look through your scrapbook to be reminded of your partner’s good points and your positive times together.

Method 3—The List

Step 1—Make a list of your partner's good points

This method is pretty simple. When you are feeling in a loving mood towards your partner, you make a written list of all the things that you like about him or her. It also helps to include nice things that the person has done for you in the past.

Keep this list somewhere handy, such as on your cell phone, or in your pocket or purse. If necessary, make copies of it and put them where you are likely to see them when you need it.

Step 2—Read your list every day at least once

Your goal here is to become very, very aware of what you value about this person. Continued practice burns it into your brain, so it can come to mind easily when you need it. This is like practicing an instrument every day so that one day you can pick it up and play well without having to think about it.

Step 3—Use your list

The next time you are in a fight or otherwise starting to only see your loved one’s bad side, read through the list. Try to get emotionally engaged with all the positive things on the list. The goal is for you to consciously choose to switch your view from he or she is all-bad to he or she has many good qualities that you value.

As with the prior methods, you are likely to find yourself having to walk yourself back from the brink of totally seeing your partner as worthless and the relationship a mistake.

You may want to reread your list every morning or just before you plan to meet up with the person. Reading it right before you see the person can help you stay more centered and aware while you are with the person.

Example: Jon initially thought that his girlfriend Nina was perfect. She was beautiful, smart, and doted on him. Unfortunately, Jon lacked whole object relations and as soon as he began to see things about Nina that he did not like, he would get very disappointed and draw back emotionally from the relationship. This would lead to fights, which made Jon even more disappointed.

Fortunately, Jon was in his 40’s and had been through this cycle many times before. This time he wanted to fight for the relationship. He entered therapy with the goal of finding a way to make this relationship work. In the first session he said:

This is not my first time at the rodeo. I have been here before with many women. Each time I start out thinking that I have finally found “the one.” Then I start seeing her flaws and I get disenchanted, break up with her, and go looking for someone better.

I realize that this time I have a “keeper.” I don’t want to lose Nina. I know the problem is me. As soon as we have a disagreement, I start backing away from her. I am lucky she hasn’t simply left me. What do I need to do?

Jon liked the idea of “The List Method” because he found it easy to note down lots of positive things about Nina. He made multiple copies and put them everywhere. He taped one to his mirror, the door to his refrigerator, next to his phone at work. He carried one in his pocket.

He decided to tell Nina about his problem and what he was doing to fix it. Nina really did care about Jon and she thought what he was trying to do was great.

They went through a period where in the middle of a disagreement, Jon would say: Let’s press pause. I need to get out my list. This eventually became a private joke between them. Sometimes Nina would say: I think we need the list now, and they would stop and laugh.

Nina made her own list of Jon’s good points and during a fight, she found that reading him what she liked about him was an effective way to remind him of her love for him.

After Nina started reading her list to him during fights, Jon realized that hearing her list worked as well as reading his list. He started noticing when he felt insecure or hurt by her and, instead of automatically withdrawing emotionally, he now felt comfortable enough to tell her: I think I would like to hear your list again.

Method 4—Rupture and Repair

This method is an adaptation of the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s concept of “good enough mothering” that he introduced in 1953. Winnocott believed that babies actually benefit from slightly imperfect mothering. If there is an occasional gap between what the baby needs and what the mother supplies and this gap is not too great, it will lead the child to try to do more on his or her own.

As long as the mother is dependable and meets the baby’s needs often enough in a timely fashion, this leads to the child internalizing the idea that people are basically good and can be depended on. It also helps develop a certain amount of frustration tolerance for those times when the other person is not meeting the child’s need. One can think of this as setting the stage for the child’s later development of whole object relations and object constancy.

This concept can be adapted to therapy in a slightly modified way as the “Rupture and Repair” method of achieving whole object relations.

The “Rupture and Repair Method” is best done in psychotherapy with a psychotherapist who understands the concept of rupture and repair or is willing to learn about it. Here is how it works:

Step 1—The Client Complains

The Rupture: Inevitably, even in the best therapy, there will be times when clients who lack whole object relations become annoyed with their therapist. If the therapy has gone well up to that point, there will be sufficient positive things that have happened that the client complains, instead of just quitting therapy. During the rupture, the therapist is now seen as all bad.

The Repair: If the therapist listens to the client’s complaints without becoming defensive and if the therapist takes responsibility for his or her part in creating the rupture, repair is possible.

Example: When I was a young therapist, I had a narcissistic client who asked to use my bathroom. I, of course, said “yes” and waited for him to return. When he returned, he started screaming at me:

ClientHow could you do that to me? Your bathroom is disgusting!

I had no idea what he was talking about. So I said:

Me: I’m sorry. I don’t know what has upset you. Please tell me about it.

Client: Well, you should know. It was humiliating! I washed my face in the sink and stood there looking for a paper towel and all there was were terry hand towels that other people had already used to wipe their hands on.

Me: Oh. I see your point. It is a very small bathroom and it didn’t occur to me that people would mind using hand towels. I am sorry it was such a bad experience for you.

ClientWell, it should have occurred to you.

Me: I wish it had occurred to me. I will try and come up with a better solution.

After I acknowledged his feelings again, my client calmed down and we were able to continue the session.

This client was very demanding and devaluing and sometimes I had no idea how to meet his needs. I was often caught off guard by how angry he would become at me over what seemed like fairly trivial things.

The above interaction was repeated over and over again in many different ways. I tried to meet his needs as much as possible, and when I could not or would not, I tried to always acknowledge his point of view.

He was a very difficult client for me, but he did very well in therapy. In retrospect, I now understand what made his therapy a success. By dealing with these seemingly trivial complaints, we were really healing small ruptures. A significant part of his therapy was about “ruptures and repairs.”

Eventually, we had done enough of them over a few years, that he began to see me as the equivalent of “a good enough mother” and he developed a more realistic, stable, and integrated view of me and the ruptures became fewer and less important to him. This was a major step forward for him towards developing whole object relations and object constancy.

Punchline: If you did not have the type of childhood that helped you develop whole object relations and object constancy, you can develop them as an adult. Like anything else worth doing, it will require some persistence and hard work. The good news is that once you develop these capacities, your self-image and your relationships will automatically become more stable. And, even better, you will no longer qualify for a personality disorder diagnosis.

Adapted from Quora post.