[5 Minute Read]
How do you "tough it out" when conflict arises? An important skill that influences our ability to navigate difficulties in relationships is something known as object constancy.
Object constancy (or object permanence) in the context of relationships, refers to the ability to maintain a sense of emotional connection and stability even when a partner or loved one is physically absent or when there are temporary conflicts or challenges in the relationship. Object constancy is what helps us tough out those moments of conflict and uncertainty. It’s the understanding that people can have separate experiences, thoughts, and feelings while still remaining connected and reliable.
It is primarily associated with early childhood development but continues to play a role throughout a person's life.
*A small disclaimer: This article is written from a neurotypical perspective and the suggestions may not necessarily be helpful to those who are neurodivergent. Object permanence problems can make people with ADHD (for instance) more likely to forget important tasks, objects, and people when they are not present. The underlying process creating these object permanence problems in ADHD likely has more to do with brain function (short term memory) than with any lack of understanding that objects and people keep existing even when we can’t see them.
How do we develop object constancy?
Object constancy typically develops during early childhood as part of a child's cognitive and emotional development, but as individuals progress through adolescence and into adulthood, their understanding of object constancy further refines and deepens. They develop a more nuanced perception of relationships, recognizing that people can have separate experiences, thoughts, and emotions while still maintaining a strong connection. This enhanced object constancy allows for more mature and resilient relationships, characterized by trust, empathy, effective communication, and the ability to weather temporary challenges.
How can you nurture object constancy within the context of a relationship?
Work on your foundation: Trust is a fundamental component of object constancy. If our trust has been repeatedly broken (during developmental stages or within critical relationships), it can be hard to believe that the other person will stick around and weather through the tough stuff with us. Foster trust in your relationship by being reliable, consistent, and following through on your commitments. Communicate openly and honestly, and address any breaches of trust promptly. Building a foundation of trust creates a sense of security and stability.
Practice effective communication: Clear and effective communication is crucial for maintaining object constancy. (Here's a wonderful workbook on assertiveness, if you need a place to start). Foster open dialogue, active listening, and empathy in your interactions with your partner. Communicate your needs, concerns, and emotions in a constructive and respectful manner. Regularly check in with each other to ensure understanding and connection.
Journaling and visualization: While it may sound a little clinical, keeping notes or a scrapbook of positive feelings and memories associated with that individual can help you recall them when difficult times strike, especially if you know that you struggle with losing hope easily. Pick a favorite memory and journal about it. Focus in particular on the good feelings you experienced . Shut your eyes and try to remember the emotions, as well as the bodily sensations you had when you were feeling them. Did your muscles feel relaxed? Do you remember smiling a lot? Can you remember the feeling of their hand in yours? Any words of encouragement they gave you? Do you remember any feelings of gratitude? Journaling about these things can also help you clear your mind
Self-soothing: Object constancy requires the ability to maintain emotional connection and stability even when the partner is not physically present. To do this, we need to practice our self-soothing skills. Emotional regulation allows individuals to manage their emotions and keep a sense of connection with their partner through memories, thoughts, and positive emotions. It helps them regulate any feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or sadness that may arise during separations. (Read this blog next for help with that: 6 Easy Ways to Practice Self-Soothing for Emotional Regulation)
Building and enhancing object constancy is a continual process that requires ongoing effort and commitment from both people. One person doing all the communicating or following through on promises is going to lead to an imbalance and resentment. Both people need to be committed to creating a safe space. Open and honest communication of expectations, doubts, and insecurities is key. If the other person shuts down your attempts at communication, breaks promises, or is repeatedly dishonest or unreliable - this person is not committed to fostering a safe space for your relationship.
Don’t get discouraged.
It takes incredible effort to develop healthy and loving relationships, especially when you didn't grow up seeing any for yourself, or if you've been hurt in the past. Recognizing the importance of maintaining emotional connection, trust, and stability is a significant step toward fostering healthier and more fulfilling connections with your loved ones. It takes courage and self-awareness to work on regulating your emotions, communicating effectively, and nurturing a strong sense of connection.
Remember, progress is a journey, and every small step you take matters. Embrace the moments of growth and resilience, even in the face of challenges. Trust that your efforts will bear fruit as you continue to prioritize emotional well-being and build stronger, more enduring relationships. In trying to build good foundations with others, you're also working on trusting yourself. Your commitment will create a foundation for deeper understanding, empathy, and lasting love. Keep going, stay patient, and believe in the transformative power of your dedication.