- People often find their ability to function diminishes after a breakup.
- Some feel like they lose a part of themselves when they break up with someone they used as a "self-object."
- A self-object is someone we use as an extension of ourselves to soothe us, help manage our self-esteem, and provide other necessary functions.
There are all sorts of reasons why we might miss an ex who is no longer in our life. Our ex may have been attractive, fun, a great lover, and shared our passion for books and travel. We may have made wonderful plans for a future together that now will never happen.
Everybody understands the normal sadness or anger that people feel after a breakup. However, sometimes our reasons for missing our ex are a bit more complex and less obvious. Here is how one of my clients described his longing for his ex-girlfriend.
Could I be "addicted" to my ex? Now that she is gone, I feel like I lost a piece of myself. I am actually having trouble functioning without her. What is wrong with me? I was always so independent and confident. Now I am a mess. Why do I feel so helpless without her?
In the above example, my client is male, and his ex is female. However, this is not a gender-specific issue. I have heard similar things from all sorts of people.
All of these stories have in common that these clients felt as if they were falling apart in some way—as if they had become addicted to something their ex provided, and now they could not function without that person in their life.
How is it possible to become addicted to another person?
One of the most useful explanatory concepts that have come out of the focus on the diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders is the concept of the “self-object.” This concept was introduced by the great Austrian-American psychiatrist Heinz Kohut (1913–1981) in his writings in the 1970s.
Kohut wrote extensively about how humans use other people to help them self-regulate and how this concept could be used to understand and help people with narcissistic personality disorder (Kohut, 1971, 1977). Modern self-psychology makes extensive use of Kohut’s concept of self-objects and self-object mergers in its treatment of narcissistic personality disorder.
I will briefly explain this concept from a developmental perspective and then relate it to why we might feel “addicted” to another person as an adult.
What is a self-object?
We use this person to perform psychological or other functions for us that, theoretically, we could learn to perform for ourselves, such as soothing us when we feel hurt or helping us regulate our self-esteem. We experience a self-object as if it is an extension or part of our self. This is called a “self-object merger” (Greenberg, p. 355).
It is quite normal to use other people as self-objects to some extent. Our use of others as self-objects changes and generally diminishes as we mature. Self-objects help us stay emotionally stable.
Babies: When we are born, we are quite helpless and totally dependent on other people, especially our primary caretakers, to make sure we are safe, fed, warm, and soothed. We cannot survive without self-objects.
Children: If we are healthy as children, we no longer need our parents as we did as babies. For example, we can use the toilet, dress, feed ourselves, etc. However, we still depend on our parents to act as self-objects and soothe us when we are hurt, take care of us when we are sick, tell us we are loved, make sure we have clothing, reassure us, and so on.
Teens: As teenagers, we are getting ready for our future as independent adults. We usually start to look to our peers to perform some self-object functions that we used to depend on our parents for. For example, as teenagers, our taste in clothing will be more influenced by our peers’ opinions than by our parents. As teens, we start looking for love, soothing, and approval from our friends.
Adults: By the time we are in our mid-20s, we start to shed some of our dependence on our peers. Many of us stop caring as much about fads and what our peers think and start to give more weight to our own opinions.
How do self-objects play a role in romantic relationships?
One of the joys of falling in love is basking in our new lover’s appreciation for us. Many of us feel more lovable, attractive, and brilliant as we see ourselves through our lover’s eyes and actions. If we are treated as precious and told we are perfect and wonderful, we start to rely on that feedback.
What happens when our lover leaves?
Once our ex-partner is no longer performing any self-object functions for us, we are left with a gap. We had unconsciously stopped taking care of some of our own emotional needs. We had learned to depend on our ex to take our side in work quarrels, reassure us that we are smart and lovable, and cheer us up when we are down. We may not have realized how much our emotional stability depended on our partner’s support. Now, without our former partner's support, we feel destabilized. We miss what they gave us.
In self-object terms, we relied on our partner to perform certain internal functions for us. We did not realize how much our self-object merger with our partner contributed to our sense of emotional stability. My clients were referring to this when they described themselves as "addicted" to their ex.
In simple terms, it is as if we used to sit in a specific chair, and now the chair is suddenly gone. We go to sit and fall on our butt. We miss our chair. It supported us and kept us comfortable and stable.
How is this like an addiction?
When we become addicted to a substance, it means that our body and mind have come to rely on it. If we take a pill to sleep every night, we will have trouble sleeping if we run out of pills. If we are physically addicted to the pill, we will suffer until our body gets used to no longer having that medication.
Although we cannot be "addicted" to an ex, if we have relied on our lover to calm us, soothe us, and help stabilize our emotions, it will be quite jarring to find ourselves without that help.
One of the reasons we might feel "addicted" or compelled to be with our ex is that we over-relied on our ex’s support without realizing it. Our ex performed certain self-object functions for us that kept us emotionally stable and happy. Now that they are gone, it is easier to fantasize about getting them back than accept that we now have to return to doing those things for ourselves.
Based on a Quora post
Kohut, H. (1971). The Analysis of Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. NY: International Universities Press, Inc.
Kohut, H. (1977). The Restoration of the Self. NY: International Universities Press, Inc.
Greenberg, E. (2016). Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety. NY: Greenbrooke Press.