Why is object constancy important to mental health recovery?

Jason Brien.

Successful trauma recovery/healing requires people to develop object constancy so that they can have healthy whole object relations with others. Unfortunately, though, the vast majority of trauma and abuse information disseminated outside of academia typically discourages people from engaging in object constancy and healthy whole object relations and instead encourages them to view others in unhealthy, unidimensional terms. Unidimensional terms such as ‘evil’, ‘narcissist’, ‘psychopath’, ‘abuser’, etc. What is object constancy and how does object constancy lead to whole object relations and healthier relationships with ourselves and others?

Object constancy is the ability to form realistic, integrative and stable ‘mental images’ of ourselves and others which includes all of the good/bad, positive/negative, liked/disliked and strong/weak traits. That is, none of us can be considered as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. We are both simultaneously. Likewise, none of us can be considered as possessing only positive traits or only negative traits. We possess both simultaneously. When we remove our black and white and polarized views of ourselves and others, we can then engage with ourselves and others holistically. As wholes - the essence of whole object relations. Object constancy also helps us to recognise and understand that despite setbacks, conflicts or disagreements, our relationships with ourselves and others can remain stable and intact.

That is, just because we are in conflict with our self or another person it doesn’t mean that we have to forget or negate all of the good and positive traits that we and others possess. Unfortunately, outside of academia/clinical settings (social media life coaches, narcissism experts, therapists, etc), trauma and abuse survivors/clients are encouraged to have whole object relations with themselves but they are often strongly discouraged from having whole object relations with others. That is, they are encouraged to forgive and accept themselves for their present and past transgressions (“you were manipulated into acting that way”, “It’s not your fault. You acted that way because you were traumatised as a child”, etc) however they are often discouraged from viewing other people in the same way (“They are evil”, “They can never change”, etc).

How often do you see or hear social media experts, life coaches, therapists, etc, talk about the good aspects of abusers, narcissists, etc or about the possibilities of change? How often do you hear them say “It is possible to love someone that you are in a conflict/disagreement with”, “It is possible to like/love someone who’s actions/behaviours you don’t condone” or “It is possible to end a relationship with someone who you still like/love”? My guess is, you are hearing this kind of perspective for the first time. The reason why this perspective is not often talked about outside of academia and clinical settings is because it is much easier for social media experts, life coaches and therapists to teach people to hate and judge than it is to try and teach them how to love and understand.

In no way, shape or form am I condoning abuse, manipulation, etc. What I am saying is, you can continue to like/love someone despite how they treat you. The problem is, when thinking of like/love, people fall into the trap off “If I like/love someone, that means I must like/love them 100%”. This is faulty as it is no different from hating someone 100%. As soon as you fall into the trap of ‘liking/loving’ or ‘hating/disliking’ anyone 100%, yourself included, you have lost your object constancy and you cannot properly engage in healthy whole relations with either yourself or others. If we wish to engage in healthy object relations, we must allow our perceptions and our feelings to exist on a spectrum if you will.

Think of object constancy and whole object relations this way. You are looking at an apple which has a bruise on it. The extent of the bruising on the apple determines the extent to which you will ‘love’ or ‘hate’ the apple (eat it or throw it in the bin). If the bruising is small, you may decide to ‘love’ the apple and thus eat it (discarding or cutting out the bruised section). It is harder to ‘love’ the apple however if the bruising is excessive. When the bruising is excessive, we must make a decision for how we proceed to view the apple. If we think of the apple only in terms of its nutritional value, we may decide that it has no value left and thus we necessarily ‘hate’ it (it gets thrown in the bin). If we wish to maintain object constancy however, we must find a way to view the apple differently.

One way to stop ‘hating’ the apple (throwing it into the bin) is to modify how we perceive its utility. To us the apple is easy to hate because we cannot see beyond its bruising which is forcing us to see that it has no nutritional value. If, however, we look beyond the bruising (we stop viewing it in unidimensional terms) we can come to recognise the nutritional value of the apple to our household plant. Or we can appreciate its nutritional value before it suffered from bruising. Suddenly we can ‘love’ it again. The important factor is we recognise both the ‘love/good’ and ‘hate/bad’ duality of the apple. Sometimes it is ‘bad/hated’ and sometimes it is ‘loved/good’ depending on the context in which we view it. This is the essence of object constancy. When we view people in unidimensional terms (evil, narcissist, abuser, etc), we lose our ability to see people as wholes. It is easy to focus specifically on their negatives that we forget that they also have positives.

So how then can we engage in healthy whole object relations with an abuser or a narcissist? Is it possible to love someone who is hurting you and does you loving them mean that you then have to accept and allow them to hurt you? Yes, to the former and no to the latter. Yes, you can continue to love someone even if they hurt you. It may be hard for you to think of the positive traits of an abuser whilst they are actively abusing you, but your inability to think of the positive traits for whatever reason, does not mean that the abuser does not possess any positive traits. Again, it is a matter of perspective and utility. Oftentimes, people use ‘love’ as a justification to remain in an abusive relationship. They say to themselves “They are not always abusive. They have some good traits and so I will stay”. 

The preceding quotation fits the criteria for object constancy however it does not lead to healthy whole object relations. The object constancy is fundamentally not healthy if it keeps you in harms way. You can have healthy whole object relations if you said to yourself “I love this person but I don’t like the abuse, I don’t condone the abuse and I don’t deserve to be abused. I will end the relationship. Or I will call the police and have them charged with assault”. Love is an act of empathy. Love is the consequence of mentalization and theory of mind. Love reminds us that no matter what people do to us, their actions are the consequence of normal human imperfection and, despite these imperfections, they are worthy of love in the same way that we are worthy of love. This is by no means a justification of abuse. It is a realistic view of both love/hates, good/bad, positive/negative, etc.