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Understanding Constancy in a Relationship

Does the light really go off when you shut the refrigerator door?

Sigmund Freud had a nephew named Ernst with whom he would play peek-a-boo. Freud would hold a teddy bear at the edge of Ernst's crib and then drop it out of sight. Ever the scientist, Freud noticed that, at a young age, Ernst would immediately lose interest when he could not see the bear. When the bear came back, so did Ernst, so to speak. As Ernst got older, Freud noticed that when the bear was out of view, Ernst would reach over the edge of the crib to find the bear.

From this experience, Freud developed a theory of cognitive development that would later come to be called "object constancy." Basically, object constancy suggests that, at some point in our early development, humans express the capacity to understand that "out of sight" doesn't mean "gone." This is a very important idea, as it is one of the core elements of an interpersonal relationship and informs everything from romantic love to jealousy to borderline personality disorder.

Berkeley asked, "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, whilst it make a sound?" Our rational mind says, "Of course." There is air, there is a big tree, the big tree moves through the air pushing it—sound wave! Our not-so-rational mind questions it, which is what makes the question interesting. A less existential version: does the light really go off when we close the refrigerator door?

So, what is Mr. Metaphor talking about this fine morning? If we can see it, feel it, taste it, touch it, we believe it. If we can't, we question it. In the case of objects (which is a fancy way of saying people)—whether they be love objects, objects of rage, mother objects, father objects, or whatever objects—if we do not have a strong sense of object constancy, we begin to irrationally question the reality of our relationship to that object in its absence.

This weakness in our sense of object constancy is what informs our sense of insecurity in love relationships, provoking clinginess and jealousy. It drives the stories we tell ourselves about our spouses or partners while we may be working through a structured separation, or just having a fight. It is how we make ourselves crazy when our love interest, who usually calls two or three times a day, hasn't called us since early morning. Or it is the anxiety we feel when someone who is close to us is having a "quiet day," and we think that they are upset with us.

What any one of these scenarios does is provoke an emotional reaction. And that reaction runs the gamut from nonchalance, to anger, to rationalizing, to sadness, to giving up, to relief; all of which looks an awful lot like a grief cycle ... which is exactly what it is!

Because in our "failure" of object constancy we do not have a grounded sense of object permanence, we experience loss at the absence of the object, and in experiencing loss we experience grief along with all the attending emotions.

Here's the frustrating part: the whole thing is a false issue. It literally is all in your head, simply because it's not in your hand.

Two things come out of this discussion. The first is understanding that relationships, like all things, go in cycles. Sometimes people are emotionally intimate, and sometimes emotionally distant. That isn't a bad thing, it's just an "is." The second is that space in a relationship is a good thing, and actually benefits the overall health of the relationship. A person with poor object constancy tends to be overbearing, suffocating, and clingy—a surefire recipe for driving someone away, not bringing them closer.

The good news is that this is one of those character traits that can be re-parented. My last post talked about the good parent, the bad parent and the good enough parent. The development of a strong sense of object constancy is part of this system of being parented. Since you didn't get it from your parents, you can give it to yourself—that's what I call re-parenting. How do you do that? In this case, it's really a question of gathering evidence to deflect the irrational idea that you make up about your relationships and the circumstances of your life.

If you go to bed at night and upon getting up in the morning your spouse or partner is quiet, it's a fair bet that they are just quiet and your relationship hasn't somehow magically changed and gone south while everyone was sleeping. If you don't hear from someone all day, it's a fair bet that you should be more concerned about not having heard from them, rather than that they are off for a quickie with someone else. If your boss doesn't say good morning, it's a fair bet that your job isn't in jeopardy, but that s/he's thinking about what s/he did to provoke that "quiet morning." Now it's amusing, right?

Just breathe and have faith—if no one is dead, bleeding, or on fire, it's all good.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica. All rights reserved.

More from Michael J. Formica EdM, NCC, LPC
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